Council approves $15 million contract for parking meters

The Houston City Council on Wednesday approved a $15 million contract to install 1,500 new tech-savvy parking meters that will allow motorists to pay using cell phones, credit cards and dollar bills, in addition to the traditional coins.

The overhaul will make Houston the first city in the country to operate parking meters off a wireless network.

"We can say that Houston now is on the cutting edge when it comes to parking," said Councilwoman Carol Alvarado.

Affiliated Computer Services Inc. of Dallas, which was chosen as the vendor for the three-year contract, will begin installing meters downtown in mid-July and expects to have half the meters working by early next year.

The meters are designed to be user-friendly: in addition to accepting various forms of payment, the solar-powered pay stations will offer directions to downtown destinations in several languages.

And the touch screens won't accept payment during times when parking is prohibited for some reason in a space where it is normally allowed, which will help customers avoid parking illegally, said Liliana Rambo, assistant director of parking management, who is managing the project.

"We're going to be able to provide better customer service," Rambo said. "It's a great leap into new technology."

Pre-registration required

To pay by cell phone, customers can call an automated service, send a text message or visit a Web site using a cell phone. They will have to pre-register their addresses, license tag numbers and credit cards by phone or online.
The project will increase the number of paid parking spaces citywide to 13,600, more than double the number now. Half of those spots will be downtown, monitored by 750 multiple-space meters that will be installed during the first phase of the project. Another 750 meters eventually will replace old meters and serve new metered spaces around Houston.

Mayor Bill White said that the goal is not only to raise more revenue for the city. Regulating parking spaces also allows more people to use on-street parking by discouraging its use as a substitute for longer-term parking.

"We can't afford to let people use valuable public property for free," he said.

Matthew Silverman, vice president of ACS's transportation services, said the meters have been a hit in Dallas, which is switching to an Internet-based system, and in Washington, D.C., where meters run off a cellular wireless network.

"They love it — both the merchants, the businesses, the tourists and the shoppers," Silverman said. "It's very convenient."

Praise for project

Council members voted unanimously to approve the contract, praising Rambo for using a transparent process and creating a project that will pay for itself. The meters, tested in downtown last year, will be paid for with revenue they collect.
"This is what taxpayers want ... a project like this that is fiscally sound," said Councilman Adrian Garcia.

It will take about 10 weeks to set up a wireless network for the project, said Richard Lewis, the city's director of information technology. That network later will become the base for a citywide wireless Internet project now in the preliminary stages.

Once the first meters are in place, parking enforcement officers plan to walk the downtown area and help motorists use them. During a two-month period, drivers will be issued warnings instead of citations for their first violations.

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