Goodbye chalking tires

There's a new high-tech sport utility vehicle cruising the streets of Santa Rosa, and it's going to make life miserable for parking scofflaws.
autochalk bilde.jpgDecked out with four cameras, two laser shooters and a global positioning system, the truck evokes images of Big Brother surveying the city streets.

The white Ford Escape hybrid was purchased by the city parking department to serve as the platform for the sophisticated array of gadgetry intended to more quickly spot parking violations throughout the city.

Eventually, it could doom the traditional system of parking officers driving slow-moving scooters and marking the tires of cars with chalk to track how long they have been in a spot. This souped-up truck will reduce the need for chalking when it's launched for official duty within the next week or two.

The new system allows us to be more efficient with how we deploy the staff, said Cheryl Woodward, deputy director of parking for Santa Rosa. Parking enforcement officers have had to chalk all the vehicles in the area, and it is a process that is labor-intensive, prone to workers compensation claims from that repetitive chalking and prone to some problems where people are removing the chalk from the vehicle.

For now, the city plans to use the truck primarily in problem areas such as around Santa Rosa Junior College and Memorial Hospital, neighborhoods where residents complain that they can't find open parking spots on their streets.

Woodward said the city spent $64,957 to purchase the new system, which will cost about $12,000 a year to maintain. She expects those costs to be recouped from an increase in parking citations generated by the rolling snoop. She said the truck will be emblazoned with Santa Rosa parking department logos before its official launch.

Inside the truck is a sophisticated computer system that enables the officer to cruise along at a comfortable 20 to 30 mph while the computer system scans parked cars and beeps when it finds one that has overstayed its limit.

Roof-mounted lasers measure the length of the car, its cameras snap photos of each vehicle and its license plate, and its computers digitally stamp the photos with a time and date. The data and photos are then stored until the enforcement truck takes a second turn down the same street.

The system will take new time-stamped photos, digitally compare the old photos with the new, consult the computer's internal data on that street's parking time limit and beep if it determines that the car has been in the same spot for too long.

The system, called auto-Chalk, was made by the Ontario, Canada, company Tannery Creek Systems. The company has deployed similar systems in Santa Barbara, Madison, Wis., Fredericksburg, Va., and other cities.

It would take them five hours to do the whole downtown with chalking, said Bill Franklin, president of Tannery Creek Systems. With our technology it takes about a half hour.

As Franklin drove the truck downtown, passers-by asked what he was doing and he explained that no, he was not the Google truck, which captures images for its online mapping systems.

Alicia Alexander of Cloverdale, who was sliding an hour's worth of quarters into a parking meter in downtown Santa Rosa, said she didn't mind the new enforcement tool.

It's just another way for law enforcement to keep an eye on who's parking properly, Alexander said. It's a great idea, but probably not for those who aren't very good about parking.

But employees at the nearby La Chaise Rouge salon said the enhanced parking enforcement could hurt their business, where many clients come in for appointments that last three hours.

Businesses have a hard enough time downtown, said hairstylist Quinn Bishop. There are empty (parking) spots all over the place. Less people would shop downtown, I guarantee it.

Franklin said he hoped the system would be used to focus on drivers who are routinely parking for several hours beyond the posted limit. He said violators who camp out in precious spots hurt downtown businesses.

The autoChalk system is capable of reading license plates, so it can alert the enforcement officer to stolen vehicles and parking scofflaws who have five or more unpaid parking tickets and are eligible to have their vehicle towed. The parking department uploads license plate data provided by the Police Department into the truck's computer system.

Woodward said the parking department doesn't have plans to regularly provide the data it collects to the police. But she said it would cooperate with police investigations if asked.

The parking department will save photos only of vehicles that were found to be in violation, Woodwardsaid, so officers have evidence if a parker contests a ticket. She also said the parking department won't be collecting more information than it currently does, because parking officers already take photos of parked cars.

Some privacy advocates are concerned that data collected by license plate readers, if shared with local law enforcement agencies, could also be shared with others, including federal agencies like the Department of Homeland Security.

We don't have any involvement with Homeland Security or any other groups, Woodward said. We haven't been approached by them, and I don't see any reason that they would have an interest in the pictures that we have.
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