When it first came into existence in 1950, the Philadelphia Parking Authority was an independent, state-chartered agency created by City Council, with a board of mayoral appointees. The money it made mostly went toward the city’s general fund.
That largely remained the case for about 50 years, and most probably expected it to stay that way.
That’s not what happened, though. In the early 2000s, a Northeast Philly state rep led a surprise state government takeover of the parking authority’s board, provoking the ire of city leadership.
And that’s just scratching the surface of how politics and power have shaped the history of Philadelphians’ ~ favorite ~ quasi-governmental agency, known and loved for its ticketing, towing, and political patronage.
How did an organization that began with the simple goal of increasing parking capacity morph into a massive management operation with hundreds of employees and a day-to-day workflow dramatic enough to make it onto reality TV?
Here’s a look at some highlights from the PPA’s storied history.
The authority does a lot of stuff, but it hasn’t always been that way
The PPA was born out of the need for more off-street parking in Center City in the 1940s and 50s, as people were increasingly bringing their cars downtown to work and shop.
Created by City Council in January 1950 (after being authorized by the state legislature a few years earlier), the parking authority’s original purpose was to build 14 proposed parking garages to combat the growing scarcity of street parking.
Construction started on the first garage, located on Walnut Street across from Rittenhouse Square, in February 1953. Getting the first few garages off the ground wasn’t exactly lucrative — it took half a decade after the PPA started operating garages for the authority to make it into the black, the Inquirer reported in 1959.
In the 1970s, the PPA was assigned another responsibility: building and overseeing parking garages at Philadelphia International Airport.
It was really the 1980s when things took off, though. The city was looking to consolidate oversight of on-street parking into one agency, rather than the handful of city departments that were running it at the time.
That plan wasn’t welcomed by everyone. The union representing municipal parking enforcement officers and police tow truck operators opposed the changes on the grounds it would be creating a “haven for political employees” rather than civil service workers, the Inquirer reported in 1982. Others voiced concern about delegating so many of the city’s powers to a “quasi-autonomous authority.”
When all was said and done, the PPA ended up being in charge of regulating street parking, installing meters and parking signs, issuing loading zone and residential parking permits, collecting money from parking meters, towing and impoundment, and processing parking tickets — a set of task once handled by a combination of the Department of Streets, Department of Licenses & Inspections, Department of Revenue, and the Philadelphia Police Department, per the PPA’s own account. The PPA also started sharing parking ticket-issuing power with the Philadelphia Police Department.
Around that time, the PPA started its booting program for drivers with multiple unpaid parking tickets. Officials went through Traffic Court records and compiled a “hot book” of cars with at least three violations to be on the lookout for (it started with 17,600 vehicles on it!), plus a “heavy hitters” list of particularly frequent or egregious violators — “something akin to the FBI’s ’10 Most Wanted’ list,” the Philadelphia Daily News wrote in 1983.
So the PPA hired 200 more employees to take care of all these new responsibilities. The amount of money the city was raking in from parking tickets soon doubled, and it wasn’t long before the authority was battling allegations of overzealousness in ticketing, towing, and booting. (Some things never change.)
Within a couple of months, City Council tried to roll it all back. Even some councilmembers had personal beef with the PPA by that point.
“They towed my city car out of my city spot. Unbelievable!” then-Councilmember Francis Rafferty said during a committee hearing in October 1983, per the Inquirer. “I had to call [City Managing Director] Rodney Johnson to get my car back, and he couldn’t get it until the next day. Now I know how the little guy feels.”
In September 1983 — five months after Council unanimously approved the original consolidation plan — then-Councilmember John Street introduced a bill to strip the PPA of many of its expanded powers and decentralize the city’s parking management program.
Ultimately, the effort didn’t amount to much, and the PPA still tickets and boots and tows today (to the chagrin of many Philadelphians).
By 1993, the PPA was recognized as one of the best parking agencies in the world for its management and collection rates, an official from the International and Municipal Parking Congress told the Inquirer.
The agency’s purview has grown even more since then. Today, the organization is in charge of the city’s expanding set of red light cameras, as well as regulating taxis, limos, and rideshare vehicles. Also added to the authority’s plate a few years ago was administering a speed camera pilot on Roosevelt Boulevard, which is supposed to expire in 2023 but could be extended through legislation.
A play for power, ostensibly to fund education
For the length of its history, the board that governs the PPA has been appointed by politicians of some sort. And regardless of exactly who’s in charge, the authority has generally retained a reputation as an employment provider for friends and allies of the powerful.
An example: During Mayor Frank Rizzo’s tenure in the 1970s, the director of the PPA got fired by the board despite board members saying he’d done a good job in the role. Why? “I continually refused to hire [Rizzo’s] political cronies,” claimed Anthony Iannarelli, the ousted director, according to reporting from the time.
But patronage hiring was a standing issue at the parking authority that spanned the tenure of many Philly mayors. A 1986 investigation by the Inquirer found that over 120 Democratic committee members, former committee members, or their relatives worked for the authority — over one-fifth of its workforce. The year prior, the newspaper reported that a dozen aides from Mayor Wilson Goode’s campaign were hired or promoted at the PPA.
[youtube url=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1GyxxCGbuRU” caption=”A%20reality%20TV%20show%20called%20’Parking%20Wars’%20ran%20in%20the%20late%202010s%2C%20mostly%20based%20around%20the%20PPA” /]
Local Democratic party influence didn’t last, though. Summer 2001 brought a state legislative shakeup that then-Mayor John Street and his lobbyists apparently didn’t see coming.
The House majority leader at the time, Republican Rep. John Perzel from Northeast Philadelphia, staged a surprise takeover.
He introduced legislation that would give the PPA’s board six members appointed by the governor, with four picked from nominees submitted by legislative leaders. The provision passed as part of an omnibus bill, and was signed into law.
A key part of the legislation involved the PPA giving some profits to the Philadelphia School District specifically, rather than the city’s general fund. Philly’s public schools were facing a funding deficit, and Republicans argued the city needed to contribute more local revenue toward the district to keep it afloat, rather than turning to the state legislature for additional money.
Meanwhile, city officials (who seemed pretty pissed about the whole situation) said they were worried the change would create a huge gap in the city’s overall funds and create disruptions to city services.
A year and a half into the power switch, some folks noticed that Philly’s public schools weren’t getting their promised payout.
Mayor Street and his administration tried to take back control of Philadelphia parking operations, to no avail. Meanwhile, Democratic Gov. (and former Philly mayor) Ed Rendell worked out a compromise with the Republican legislative majority in Harrisburg to keep the PPA board under state control but to create a defined formula for dividing revenue from its on-street parking operations between Philly schools and the city’s general fund.
The school district finally got its first paycheck from the PPA in April 2004, according to news reports from the time.
Republicans take over — and Philly schools still get stiffed
Once the authority’s board was squarely out of the hands of Philadelphia Democrats, the amount of patronage didn’t really change — though power shifted hands, and the PPA became a largely Republican patronage stronghold.
In 2007, the Inquirer crunched the numbers once again and found that six ward leaders (five Republicans and one Democrat) and over 170 Republican and Democratic committee members were on the PPA’s payroll — plus “dozens more staffers with clear political or familial connections to local power-players.”
Plus, the authority was stuffed with management roles, per the Inquirer. According to the newspaper’s reporting, there were just 5.5 employees for every one supervisor.
Patronage at the PPA isn’t quite a thing of the past, it seems.
As part of a 2020 audit of the PPA’s on-street parking expenses, City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart randomly sampled 107 employees working in the on-street parking and support units. She found 25 of those employees “either held political positions themselves or resided with someone who did.” The report also noted that some management positions were paid more than counterparts in other cities.
The PPA director at the time, Scott Petri, defended the authority by pointing out that many employees have worked there for a long time and couldn’t be fired simply because of political connections. As for managers’ high salaries, PPA officials said comparisons to other cities were flawed because responsibilities and structures vary from parking authority to parking authority.
Rhynhart’s audit did find the PPA has made some progress on fairer hiring practices in general, though she noted they weren’t used when filling some higher-level positions at the authority.
The air around where the money goes hasn’t really been cleared in recent years, either.
Per the PPA’s financial statements, legislation passed in 2012 set a minimum amount of $35 million (with annual increases — the 2021 amount was $41.7 million) to be paid to the city each year from the PPA’s revenue, with the remainder going toward the school district.
But some say the authority hasn’t been fully paying up. Rhynhart found in her 2020 audit that the School District of Philadelphia might’ve lost out on up to $77.9 million because of the PPA mismanaging its finances, and City Council earlier this year launched a set of hearings to investigate the agency.
The parking authority doesn’t currently have an executive director after the sudden ouster of Petri, a former Republican state representative from Bucks County, earlier this year. (If you’re interested in the role, you can apply on LinkedIn.)
The PPA’s total reported revenue for the fiscal year ending in March 2021 was around $181 million.