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Council cracks down on off-site parking near O'Hare, Midway

Ald. Michael Zalewski said off-site parking companies have been paying the tax for years in other cities. And the free ride needs to end in Chicago. | Sun-Times file photo

Bargain days won’t end entirely for air travelers who park at off-site garages and lots and ride shuttles to O’Hare and Midway airports. But the discounts are about to shrink.

The City Council on Wednesday set the stage for more nickel-and-diming of Chicago taxpayers by approving a long-stalled ordinance empowering the city to slap parking companies that have set up shop just outside both airports — in some cases outside the city to avoid paying a parking tax that Mayor Rahm Emanuel loves to raise — with a tax of 10 percent of their gross revenues.

The mayor’s ordinance authorizes Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans to “negotiate and execute” five-year agreements with any off-airport parking service provider that uses airport roadways or other airport facilities to pick up, drop off or otherwise serve customers” at either airport. Those companies would be prohibited from using airport roadways and facilities without such an agreement.

The tax would also apply to hotels that offer parking to their guests and shuttle them to O’Hare and Midway.

The “access fee and/or concession fee” was initially pegged at 12 percent, but reduced in negotiations between the companies and the city. That’s why company lobbyists, including former State Rep. Robert Molaro (D-Chicago) representing Wally Park, testified in favor of the tax.

Aviation Committee Chairman Mike Zalewski (23rd) acknowledged Wednesday that the costs are almost certain to be passed along to consumers in the form of higher rates. He doesn’t feel good about that. Not after raising property taxes by $588 million and imposing a first-ever garbage collection fee.

But Zalewski said off-site parking companies have been paying the tax for years in other cities. And the free ride needs to end in Chicago.

“They’re paying about a third now of what it costs to park on the airport property. They may pass some of these charges off to the consumer. I would hope that they would be reasonable in what they do and eat it, considering that, for years, they have not paid any fee. But, that’s what some businesses do. They pass the charges along to their parkers,” Zalewski said.

“You don’t like to keep asking taxpayers for more. But in this case, it’s probably something that’s long overdue.”

An analysis conducted by the city in conjunction with World Business Chicago showed that, of the top 15 airports nationwide, O’Hare is second in outbound enplanements but only 10th in ground transportation revenue. Based on 2014 revenues, the 10 percent tax is expected to generate $2.7 million a year. That’s 10 percent of the city’s $20.7 million annual spending on airport roadway maintenance.

For air travelers and their loved ones who choose to pay more for the convenience of parking on the grounds of O’Hare and Midway, Emanuel’s ordinance also authorizes Evans to establish an incentive-laden program to reward “frequent parkers.”

Premium services to be offered include a reservation system that would eliminate the need to drive from floor to floor at O’Hare in search of a space you can’t find – provided you’re willing pay for the privilege.

Car washing, detailing and “light maintenance services” are also expected to be offered to business travelers and other frequent fliers.

The precise number of parking spaces that would be made available for reservation was not immediately known, nor was the reservation fee. O’Hare already offers valet parking for a much higher price. Reservations would be made either online or through a phone app.

Zalewski has said the reservation and car-repair services are not for everyone.

“A lot of business travelers will take advantage of that for the sheer convenience,” he said.

“Leisure travelers going on vacation tend to get to the airport two hours in advance. They relax. They get a bite to eat. But the business traveler tends to cut it close, time-wise. They run on a tight schedule. They would definitely take advantage of something where the parking space is more of a guarantee.”