By Jon Delano

When the final bids were opened on Mayor Ravenstahl’s proposal to lease the city’s parking garages and neighborhood meters for 50 years, the mayor declared his surprise.

“The winning bid of $451 million, it certainly blew away my wildest expectations,” he said.

But the winning bidder, LAZ Parking Ltd., was hardly a surprise to industry analysts who see LAZ as a fast-growing operator of parking garages across America.

“LAZ has been in business for the past 30 years,” LAZ CEO Alan Lazowski told KDKA Money Editor Jon Delano.

“We started in Hartford, Conn., in 1981, and we’re now nationwide company that operates in 21 states and over 100 cities and we’re the fourth largest parking operator in the country.”

One of its largest operations is in Chicago which has been controversial with critics and the city’s inspector general accusing the mayor there of leasing assets worth much more than the money LAZ paid.

Could that be true here?

Pittsburgh City Council hopes to find out by conducting its own independent study of this project due Friday.

But even if Pittsburgh’s city garages and parking meters are worth more than LAZ bid, some critics say the more immediate concern is that LAZ will be able, under Ravenstahl’s plan, to raise parking rates in the city.

“Will it mean higher prices for everybody?” Delano asked Lazowski.

“Well, the good news is that the rates were set by the city in the concession agreement,” he says.

That’s true.

The mayor did set the rates in his Request for Proposals and they’re going up.

At the Ninth & Penn Garage downtown, for example, the hourly rate of $3.75 will jump to $12 an hour, while the daily rate nearly doubles from $9.75 to $19 a day.

At the Mellon Square Garage, the $5 hourly rate will triple to $15 an hour, while the daily rate jumps from $13.75 to $24 a day.

“That’s pretty steep,” says Melanie Chiaramonte of Whitehall. “I think $13.75 is a lot to be honest and $24 that’s going to make things tough. That’s diapers. I’ve got a baby at home. That’s a whole pack of diapers.”

And it’s not just the cost of parking in the garages that will go up.

Under the mayor’s leasing proposal, almost every meter in Pittsburgh will go up, too, like those in downtown Pittsburgh, from $2 to $4.50 an hour. That’s 18 quarters.

Most meters around the neighborhood business districts now charge 50 cents an hour, but that will go up over the next four years, depending on the neighborhood.

Lawrenceville meters go up to $1 an hour, Bloomfield up to $1.50, Brookline up to $2 an hour, and Oakland and Shadyside up 600 percent to $3 an hour.

“It’s just outrageous, and more people are just not going to come downtown,” says Sandra Smith of Munhall. “They’re going to go to the malls.”

“Surely there must be some other solution,” adds Mary Ellen Wawrzyniak of North Huntingdon.

That solution will be up to Pittsburgh City Council as it debates alternative ways to raise money for the city’s underfunded pension program or allow the state to take over the system.

As for the parking rates, these rate increases would be phased in over the next four years. After that, rates can only go up with inflation.

The mayor’s office emphasizes that meters have not gone up at all in 15 years and garage rates have remained the same for four years, below market rates.

But once city garages go up, you can expect the private lots to go up as well.

City Council is expected to start their review of all this on Friday.

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