As Baltimore's bean counters sweat the city's dwindling revenue streams, there is a bright spot: Money from new-fangled electronic parking meters is far higher then expected.
In the four years since the black rectangular boxes that serve an entire block were installed, Baltimore parking revenues have risen 54 percent, from $4.5 million in fiscal year 2004 to $7 million this fiscal year. The increase has come without increased parking charges or the creation of new paid parking areas.
"Financially, they are doing well," said Peter E. Little, head of the city's Parking Authority, calling the collection boon a "happy byproduct" of the machines. "The real aim has been to make it easier for people to comply with the law," he said.
Part of the windfall stems from more cars. Because the meters do not define a single space, they enable 10 percent to 15 percent more cars to fit on each block. "Parkers love the program," Little said.
But much of the revenue increase seems to come because the machines accept payment by credit card, now used by about half of all parkers.
The minium payment with plastic is $1, and Little believes parkers wind up paying for more time then they would if they had to fill meters with loose change.
Credit card use can create another benefit for the city's coffers. Parkers sometimes press a button labeled "max," for maximum time.
That automatically charges the parker for two or even four hours of parking time, depending on the location.
The city does not keep statistics on how often that occurs, but Little has heard of a number of people who find that the easiest option.
Nick Syropoulos, 57, who parked recently in Fells Point - where the meters were first installed in a 2004 pilot program - said the signage on the meters was not clear. He used to think he had to press the "max" time button every time he used a credit card. Now he knows better.
Officials in other cities using the multispace meters have noticed that credit card use increases parking revenue.
Washington has installed the meters in various neighborhoods - generating a 35 percent to 40 percent revenue increase in the Georgetown neighborhood where parkers use credit cards for about 50 percent of the payments.
In the Adams Morgan neighborhood, where about a quarter of parkers pay by credit card, the city saw a more modest 20 percent revenue increase, said John Lisle, a spokesman for Washington's Transportation Department.
Baltimore officials estimated that the first 300 to 400 meters would net the city an extra $1 million increase in collections. Instead, the revenue increased almost $2.5 million.
It's money that Baltimore can sorely use. Mayor Sheila Dixon has cut $36.5 million from this year's budget and is slicing $65 million from next year's. That figure could grow if the state, facing a $400 million shortfall, decides to reduce funding for city programs.
In Portland, Ore., revenues increased about 30 percent over three years as that city installed multispace meters, said Ellis McCoy, the manager of the city's parking program.
There, parking citations dropped about 5 percent after new meters went in, McCoy said. "We'd much rather people obey the parking laws than get the citation," he said.
But in Baltimore, there has been no dip in parking fine revenues.
If some parkers are inadvertently paying too much through credit cards, others have found a way to exploit a loophole. The electronic meters spit out a paper receipt with an expiration time, and there is no penalty for motorists who pass unexpired receipts to the next person or move their cars to other parts of the city.
John Furst, who was parking at Broadway Market in Fells Point recently, said he quickly realized that he could buy time on a meter on Eastern Avenue - where the city charges 50 cents an hour --- and use that receipt a few blocks over in Fells Point where it costs one dollar an hour to park.
"If you are in the know in Baltimore, you can do well," Furst said.
Little, with the Parking Authority, said that in the future the city might restrict receipt reuse to sectors in the city.
Another benefit to the city is reduced fraud. Because money collected from the new meters is "fully auditable," the city knows exactly how much it should receive from each meter. "Each payment gets registered," Little said. "We can report how much should be in each canister. We can reconcile everything."