Time is running out for city's old parking meters

O'Malley asks council for $4 million for high-tech machines that take coins and credit

September 20, 2005|By Doug Donovan | Doug Donovan,Sun reporter

Time is expiring, Baltimore, for the bubblegum-machine parking meters of old. The deposit-your-coin, twist-for-time machines were first introduced to the city in the 1950s and they now stand sentry over 10,980 individual parking spaces.

But a $4 million plan by Mayor Martin O'Malley's administration, presented last night to the City Council, calls for replacing nearly half of the traditional meters with new, high-tech machines that have been tested for more than a year in Fells Point and along Charles Street downtown.

Unlike the coins-only machines lining most city streets today, the 600 automated meters that would be rolled out over three years - with no rate increases (yet) - will allow parkers to buy time with credit and debit cards in addition to quarters, dimes and nickels.

In May 2004, the city installed 70 of the new meters in Fells Point and along Charles Street, north of the Inner Harbor to Centre Street.

The new meters initially caused some problems in Fells Point when parkers assumed they did not have to pay after the old meters were removed, said Councilman James B. Kraft, who represents the neighborhood. Many people did not notice the new meters.

"They seem to be working out all right," Kraft said. "The biggest problem was that they went in without announcement."

Kraft said he supports the installation of the new machines so long as the administration informs the public that they will be installed throughout the central business district and other neighborhoods.

The parking authority is asking the council for a $4 million appropriation and needs a change in the city charter to permit the use of such technology, which has been used in Europe since the first Bush administration. The idea has only recently caught on in North America - in Toronto; New York; Portland, Ore.; and Fort Lauderdale, Fla., among other places.

Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. said his constituents in downtown also took some time to get used to the new machines, but that people seem to have no problems with them now.

Mitchell said business owners like them because they create more parking spaces.

The benefits of the new machines are many, according to Peter Little, the Baltimore Parking Authority's executive director.

Little told the council yesterday that by eliminating individual designated spaces with the old meters, the new machines permit more cars to squeeze into the same amount of curb space.

The current meters have not evolved much since the nation's first ones were installed in downtown Oklahoma City in 1935. But the new ones run on solar power, beam real-time parking data to City Hall, and allow parkers to take unexpired time to a new parking spot.

In fiscal year 2005, parking meters generated $5.15 million in gross revenues for the city. Parking fines generated twice that amount.

Each of the new meters serves six to eight parking spaces, which accounts for their price tag of $7,000 apiece. Traditional single-space models go for about $700.

Little said the new ones would save the city money because there are fewer of them to service. Because each meter wirelessly beams data to the city, parking officials can wait until they know it's full or damaged before dispatching someone to empty or repair it.

He said no rate increases are accompanying the new meters but that the parking authority would study the issue.

Little also said revenues would rise by more than $1 million in part because people using credit cards tend to charge the maximum amount of time and because more cars can fit on blocks.

Baltimore officials are negotiating with Cale Parking Systems USA, the Clearwater, Fla., division of a Swedish meter company, for the new machines. The company provided the test run of 70 meters for a nominal fraction of transactions on each machine.

About 5 1/2 feet tall and 1 1/2 feet wide, the black meters look like automated teller machines with a few buttons and small screens. On the side is an orange-and-black EZ Park logo with a smiling cartoon car.

After payment is made with quarters, dimes, nickels or plastic, the machine spits out a ticket that a driver displays on the dashboard. Meter readers check the time of expiration printed on the ticket. The meters do not accept dollar bills.

Tamaira Long, a Downtown Partnership public safety guide, said most of the people whom she sees using the new machines like them because they are able to squeeze into spots that may not have existed before. She also said the new devices do not break as often as the traditional meters.

"People really like these better," Long said.

Skip Seward agreed with Long's assessment yesterday.

The Towson Realtor parked on Charles Street, just south of Franklin Street, and stood staring at the new meter's screen. He lowered his glasses and read the instructions.

"How do you know how much time you have?" he asked.

Seward fed four quarters into the new, high-tech parking meter and got an answer: one hour. He said the machines were fine by him.

"As long as I can still put my quarters in," Seward said.

doug.donovan@baltsun.com

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