The “Free Parking isn’t Free” Fallacy

There’s a talking point being repeated by Fayetteville leaders who support paid parking downtown. It’s been parroted by Mayor Colvin and many on the city council. Former Mayor Tony Chavonne said it on a local radio show this morning, and it was applauded by the host as a “great argument.” It’s not, and here’s why:


“Free parking isn’t free” seems good at first because it tugs at your sense of fairness. The gist is this: The City (through taxpayers) spends money to service the free parking spaces and lots downtown. Not all Fayetteville taxpayers go downtown to park, and the City’s losing money. The people that actually use the parking spaces downtown should pay. Get some meters down there, stat!

Seems fair, right?

Here’s the glaring weakness: You can make the same argument about any public expenditure that ever happened!

Seriously, name any public project or amentity that you won’t personally use and shoot it down with the arrows of selfishness and thrift.

Try it for yourself:

“Free ____public amenity I haven’t used lately_____ isn’t free!!!”

Image result for parking attendant downtown fayetteville

It seems good at first, but you’ll quickly feel like a miser. Why? Because we don’t privatize everything in our society. If we did, we wouldn’t need government in the first place. There is such a thing as the “common good,” even when the entire common isn’t participating.

We’ll start with a basic example. “Free education isn’t free!!!” Did you hear that kids!? Now, hand over your lunch money!! We have to pay for a new parking lot for the buses that got you to school.

Too extreme? Say you’re a father of two. A new elementary school is being built in your neighborhood and will be finished the year your youngest begins middle school. Does the fact that you and yours won’t use the new school make it any less worthy? Should those kids and those parents have to pay to build the school that they will be using? No, of course not. Why? Long ago, we made a policy decision to provide free education for all our youth, emphasis on “our.”

What about the new senior center that’s being built, or the splash pads that went up across Fayetteville. Unless you have kids or you’re getting old, you probably won’t use these city amenities. Should we charge the people that do and ask for our tax dollars back? No, we value the quality of life of our children and our elderly. Again, emphasis on “our,” and please do not yell “Free splash pads aren’t free!!!” to kids at Honeycutt Park this summer.

Now, let’s get specific to transportation:

I’ll never use the brand new bus station downtown that was paid for with 12.6 million in state and federal funds. Should we require that 12.6 million back from the bus riders of Fayetteville in increased fees? No, that won’t happen. Why? We’ve made a policy decision to provide affordable transportation for members of our community that need it.

I’m done tugging at your conscience, so maybe the numbers will help persuade you:

Here’s the parking breakdown from the City’s 2018-2019 Budget:

You can see that in the past few years, we’re bringing in a quarter million dollars in parking fees and tickets, but we’re spending more than that, forcing “interfund transfers” of around $100,000 to fill the hole. In short, the city’s “losing” about $100,000 a year in parking.

I honestly thought it was more than that after listening to our City talking-heads. Maybe my numbers are wrong. Feel feel to correct me.

Is all of this debate over a meager $100,000 in a city budget with expenditures of $215,369,370. If so, our so-called “parking loss” is 0.046% of our budget. Is change really needed?

Downtown Priorities

Remember, the City is building a 14.7 million dollar (and rising) parking deck downtown that the public won’t get to use. The primary purpose of the deck is to “service the private development” around it:

The contract for the deck includes a development fee of $575,000 for Prince Charles Holdings, who will get to use 90% of the deck “at cost.” That’s enough money to keep free parking downtown and cover the entire budget shortfall for the next five years.

Instead, the City of Fayetteville is going to “leverage” a self-created parking shortage surrounding the stadium downtown. Get ready to pay when you go to a baseball game, try to grab a sandwich, or shop at a local boutique.

Free parking isn’t free? Neither is a City government that’s creating a false crisis in order to make money off its citizens.

Thanks for reading. Next time I’m charging you.

3 responses

  1. Matt, I completely agree with your comments and appreciate you putting all of this in perspective. However, I do have one point I would like to throw into the mix. The use of prime parking (street side parking) needs to be regulated in some way to prevent people from taking advantage of this parking. For example, parking in front of my store – if there was no control, ie. regulations like limiting time or in the case of paid parking spots, someone could park there all day for free and limit other people from parking there. Employees should not be taking up prime parking for customers. I pay for a parking spot in the parking deck for my employees so they don’t park on the street. I would like to see the prime parking spots have more restrictions and the less prime have lesser restrictions. It’s a way to get people to use the parking deck more often. All this is to say, we still need to have these conversations and your understanding of the issues is hugely appreciated. I really like your perspective.

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  2. There’s an easy fix that doesn’t require meters: change the parking on Hay St. to one hour. Premium spaces should have a shorter time allowance. Violations will probably increase, making up some of the $100,000 shortfall.

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  3. Pingback: Borrowing Millions, “Just In Case” « Cross Creek Divide

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