I'm no fan of privatizing government services as a panacea, but when it comes to the Toronto Parking Authority I waver. The TPA, as the Toronto Star notes, was explicitly created to undercut the prices of private parking lots. The TPA was created in the '50s "after department stores complained customers weren't shopping downtown because of price gouging by private parking lot operators". I wonder if they bothered to measure and define "price gouging" versus a fair price, or if drivers just felt they were paying too much.
But then driving is not a cheap pastime and parking lots downtown aren't built cheaply. A parking operator downtown must purchase the expensive downtown land, and must make enough money off of parking to make it worthwhile. The owner of the land would probably also consider the alternative uses of that land. We can see that parking is just not as profitable as alternative uses by seeing just how many downtown parking lots are being turned into condos or commercial buildings.
The City has a by-law that limits what the TPA can charge drivers for on-street parking at $3.50 per hour. There is no such limit for public transit fees.
179-7. D. The Parking Authority shall be authorized to fix rates for on-street parking meters or parking machines, provided that such rates do not exceed $3.50 per hour and have been agreed to by the Ward Councillors for the Ward in which the parking meters or parking machines are located. [Amended 2009-12-04 by By-law No. 1181-2009]
According to the Toronto Star, on-street rates have only increased 50 cents since 1999, supposedly to "reflect inflation". But this maximum limit hasn't even kept up with inflation. According to the Bank of Canada $3 in 1999 would be $3.90 now. We're subsidizing drivers even more than 12 years ago.
In the off-street Green P lots the TPA by City bylaw undercuts neighbouring businesses by setting its prices at "75 per cent of any nearby competitor's". I could imagine that by making parking less profitable the TPA might be ironically reducing the amount of off-street parking downtown when a business can make more money by converting the parking lot to some other use.
There's been a lot of right-wing talk about how we "subsidize" public transit and cyclists but they nicely avoid any look at how the public sector has favoured private automobile operators by showering them with subsidizies, free roads and cheap parking. We all pay for Toronto roads, freeways and parking whether we use them a lot or next to never. This is neither fair nor efficient. We are all effectively paying large amounts of money to keep catering to the least efficient, least sustainable and most polluting form of transportation. But then the drivers might argue that it is their right to gouge us all to have the freedom to drive (at least Rob Ford would claim so).
We don't live in a political culture that wants to admit how car drivers are privileged. By privatizing the TPA we may add some distance between politicians and the urge to set limits on what it can charge. Drivers tend to get angry at the corporation that runs the 407 when it raises its rates, but it's probably a good thing that they can't undo its pricing decisions via politicians. The 407 was a hugely expensive venture funded by the province; its building reportedly cost 1.6 billion dollars but acquiring the land cost the province 100 billion dollars over 30 years, according to Hansard, the Ontario government's newsletter. The prices better be high enough to make that money back (despite the high price tag, Harris' Tories leased it to a consortium for 99 years at only 3.1 billion dollars).
Privatizing the TPA won't prevent politicians from trying to put a limit on what it can charge if the 407 is any indication. The province went to court with the 407 consortium to prevent them from raising the toll rates since the contract required them to first get approval from the government. It appears that the 407 consortium won the right to raise tolls to maintain smooth traffic levels. But when the Liberal government wanted to build an extension it decided that it would keep ownership for itself so it could once again keep the tolls low enough to placate drivers (according to Wikipedia).
Perhaps a privatized TPA would gain the freedom to charge what is in its own best interest and what happens to be in the best interest of the whole city. I'd be happy to keep the TPA public, however, if politicians could be trusted to let the TPA to charge the same rates as private operators.
Update: a previous version incorrectly said "Toronto Public Authority" - it has been corrected.