Last year, Dublin City Council brought in €18.4 million less than expected from parking-related income streams, show official figures.
Rather than €39.3 million, it brought in €20.9 million in parking meter fees, parking enforcement and disc fees, they show.
In this year’s budget, agreed by councillors in November 2020, the council estimated that it would be a similar picture, although how that panned out won’t be clear until official figures are published ahead of a budget meeting later this month.
That dip in income accounted for a small amount of the council’s €1.03 billion budget for 2020, about a third of which is funded by what it calls “goods and services”, including rents, parking-related income and other items, a third from rates, and a third from grants and subsidies from central government.
As councillors gear up to vote on the council’s budget for 2022, some are discussing how to calculate how the push to support more sustainable transport in the city impacts the council’s budget, whether it means a net loss or not, and if so what levers it has to make up that money in other ways.
Recent changes in the city have included swapping out car parking spaces for outdoor dining. More recently, council officials have talked about increasing car-parking fees and tolls on the Tom Clarke bridge.
“Relying on parking when we’re trying to make the city more sustainable, it certainly feels like a move we need to be coming away from,” says Cat O’Driscoll, a Social Democrats councillor.
Councillors know that this year there is a big hole in the budget in general, O’Driscoll says. “We have been talking about the deficit and we can be plugging that gap and where cuts can be made.”
In a way, the amount brought in directly from parking meters and other car-related fees is easier to sum up than what to include on the other side of the equation: the costs of catering for cars in the city, and working out how they may change.
There are the long-term costs of continuing to burn the fossil fuels that run cars with internal-combustion engines, and help to generate the electricity that electric cars run on: carbon-emissions, climate change, rising sea levels, and more – such as health impacts.
Climate changes are impacting the city already, and will cost it many millions in the future as national and local governments work to protect Dublin by doing things like building higher and higher flood walls.
But at the moment, councillors were a bit less focused on these big-picture, long-term car-related issues than on short-term ones related to next year’s budget.
The short-term costs of hosting cars in the city include providing paid parking and towing services. In 2020, the council spent €14.6 million on those.
The same year, its road, transport and safety division spent an estimated €109.5 million on road maintenance, public lighting, improving traffic management and education – which other modes may have benefited from.
Having fewer paid parking spaces in the city will lead to less income but also less demand for clamping services and road maintenance, says Labour councillor Dermot Lacey.
Green Party councillor Michael Pidgeon says if the number of cars in the city reduces, then traffic and wear and tear on the roads would hopefully be improved. “There’s costs that come around with having lots of cars in the city centre.”
Removing parking around the city has been to facilitate other things, says O’Driscoll, which bring in revenue.
“To facilitate biking around the city which gets more people to use the city,” she says. “For outdoor dining, which is still quite popular despite the cold weather. And that’s keeping businesses going.”
Pidgeon, the Green Party councillor, says that more residential streets in the city centre are voting to introduce paid parking spaces, ticked off by overcrowding when nearby workers park their cars for free in housing estates, he says.
That might lead to the council getting more money for parking, says Pidgeon. “It may be balanced out to some extent, from areas where there was free parking before and now you’ve got residents paying for permits.”
Labour Party Councillor Dermot Lacey says although there isn’t much free parking left in the city, there will have to be a reduction. “Every time the traffic officials find a free place they’re onto it like a shotgun now,” he says. “There’s very, very, very few.”
Dublin City Council did not respond to queries sent Thursday asking how many public parking spaces in the city it estimates are free parking. It didn’t respond either to a query about how many car parking spaces are available for free to council employees and whether it would charge for them.
Predictions about the impact of parking changes haven’t always been straightforward.
In 2014, the council estimated, in a response to a query from independent Councillor Nial Ring, that losing 440 parking bays with the construction of what was then known as the Luas Cross City – now the northern part of the Green Line – would leave it with an annual loss of €1.8 million.
Ring then asked in a February 2020 motion whether the council could quote the loss to the city at over €10 million, given the initial €1.8 million per annum loss since 2014, and whether it had asked the National Transport Authority (NTA) to cover it.
In response, the council’s chief executive said that income from parking meters actually increased from €24.4 million in 2014 when Luas works commenced, to €28.1 million in 2018 when the new segment of the Green Line was opened. So for that, and other reasons, it wouldn’t be asking the NTA for anything, he wrote.
In response to a query by Ring on Monday, the council said “there is undoubtedly a direct financial loss to the City Council in respect of road space previously dedicated to parking meters now used to facilitate the operation of Luas Cross City”.
However, the Luas is better for the city, said the response. “It is believed that the broader benefits to the city and the City Council far outweigh the loss of parking meter funding.”
The loss of a small number of parking meters around the city does not deter users, they said. “Instead such changes result in the remaining parking bays being used more extensively. The City Council remains mindful of the need for parking arrangements for motorists.”
Measures that improve public transport aren’t just important financially, says Pidgeon, the Green Party councillor. “But if there is a reduction in income, we do have to find new ways of raising that.”
The council will have to pay for sustainable transport facilities too: bus and bike parking, road maintenance. “In overall city terms, it’s better for the city,” says Lacey, but balance is needed - some parking spaces will need to be kept.
O’Driscoll, the Social Democrats councillor, says that the council isn’t making decisions based on costs. “I would be disappointed if anyone is treating this just as income for the council.”
“I think most of the time the council is thinking about what’s good for the city and not just the bottom line,” she says.
Pidgeon says he has heard talk suggesting that the council won’t remove on-street parking spaces in town because it wants the money. “I understand that argument but in practice I haven’t found that to be an issue.”
Carolyn Moore, a Green Party councillor, says she thinks that councillors will have to discuss the deficit at the budget and development plan meetings later this month.
“I think the conversation has to include the climate, sustainability, accessibility and the success of the city,” she says.
In the development plan discussions, councillors have sent motions asking for targets for the reduction of parking spaces, which hasn’t happened yet, she says.
The government’s new Climate Action Plan, expected to be published this week, “will have quite radical overhauls in terms of cutting transport emissions”, she says.
“So we are moving to a state where we want to actively discourage people from driving into the city unless they have to,” she says.
Money from Elsewhere
Lacey says there should be more discussion around how councils are funded from central government.
“The way local government is funded is a bit from here, a bit from there. Nobody really knows how it’s funded,” he says.
Parking charges and corporation rates are discussed so frequently at meetings as if a significant stream of council income in the annual budget, he says, but they make up a small portion of the council’s total income.
In the council’s 2020 budget, with revenue of about €1.03 billion, rates accounted for about €357 million of that, and parking fines and charges €37.4 million.
“So what we really need to do is just have a really proper, national, grown up debate about local government and how we’re going to fund it into the future,” he says.
Says O’Driscoll, the Social Democrats councillor: “There’s a lot of money at European level we’re not taking advantage of and applying for.”
European funding takes time to apply for but would be a potential for a short-term revenue stream, she says, and could be tied to spending on climate-crisis measures.
Pidgeon, the Green Party councillor, says the move away from cars as potential loss to state income is also being discussed at national government level.
Motor and fuel taxes pay for road maintenance, “and more latterly to provide incentives for the purchase of lower emission vehicles”, says a September climate action report by the government’s tax strategy group.
With the government’s target of one million electric vehicles nationally by 2030, it estimates losing €1.5 billion worth of revenue annually from motor and fuel taxes.
Congestion charges could be an option to recoup these costs, such as those used in London and some continental European cities, it says. But “broad acceptance with congestion based charges may be an issue as it gives rise to equity issues” between those who can easily afford the charges and those who can’t.
Other options are a tax on distance travelled in a motor car, such as a euro per kilometre, or more toll bridges.
Taxes on things the city wants to reduce, like cars and carbon, will eventually fade away, says Pidgeon. “As there’s less pollution, the tax will bring in less revenue, but in some ways that’s kind of the point, and that’s okay.”
It won’t change overnight, and the city will have time to react by bringing in new income streams, he says. “There’s never going to be a big bang moment where all car spaces are gone.”