Salt Lake City may upgrade to high-tech parking meters

In a move some say is decades overdue, officials of Utah's capital city may finally be on the verge of signing off on replacing more than 2,000 coin-operated parking meters throughout the city.
And while few will likely miss rifling through glove boxes or scrounging under floor mats for precious lost change, a surprise or two could accompany the update to the latest in parking meter technology.

Mayor Ralph Becker said the need to bring the antiquated system into the here-and-now has been on his mind since his first days in the executive's chair.

"Shortly after I came into office, one of the things I asked is that we pursue revamping our antiquated parking meter system," Becker said. "Now, it looks like we're close to making that a reality."

That reality could include a host of niceties that will make parking at metered locations faster, easier and virtually hassle-free, unless of course, one strays over the infraction line.

A study commissioned by the city will get a vetting before the Salt Lake City Council Tuesday and outlines all the high-tech options currently available for managing metered municipal parking. The selection includes pay stations that accept credit and debit cards along with paper currency, smartcards or tokens. New wireless technology allows the machines to do a host of "thinking," like recognizing if a space is occupied, and, if it is and payment hasn't been made, instantly sending an electronic message notifying parking enforcement. That same messaging capability can also simultaneously log citations, once they're issued, into the court system.

While the smart machines are capable of quickly, and efficiently identifying scofflaws, that same processing power also creates new ways for drivers to stay out of trouble. One option, according to the information compiled by Walker Parking Consultants, allows a parker to get a text message notifying them of a meter that's about to run out and, (as long as the maximum two hours has not been exceeded,) allows for extending time via cell-phone transmitted payment. Salt Lake Council Chairman J.T. Martin said the new technology equates to money in the bank.

"This changeover is projected to add $2 million-$3 million in parking-related revenue annually," Martin said. "While it sounds like some of that will come from enforcement, most of the increase is from the increased efficiencies."

Those efficiencies, however, will come with an estimated price tag of $7.1 million. The Walker consultants number-crunched options for the city, including outright purchase, leasing or a public-private partnership. Whether rates would go up with the installation of new equipment is also an unanswered question.

While Martin said he felt the council would get behind a system upgrade, upping the parking rate would not be a requisite of that decision.

In Park City, parking pay stations have been in use for nearly a decade, and have recently been upgraded to harness solar power.

"It seems to work quite well and we've had few complaints," said Park City Councilwoman Liza Simpson. "The system we chose is used widely by municipalities."

While lagging somewhat behind its mountain neighbor, Salt Lake's current parking system looks positively prehistoric compared to global trends.

"European cities have been using these systems for decades," said parking enforcement head Capt. Carroll Mays of the Salt Lake Police Department. "These will change the entire framework, from easing the act of parking, to enforcement, to the courts and even how you pay your ticket."

Mays said some pay station systems allow for instant ticket payment at the kiosk in addition to the option of electronic payment via cell phone. He said city government could create incentives, like a ticket discount, for those who pay in a specified time period. As for the work of the 14 full-time enforcement officers, reduced meter enforcement time should lead to more attention in outlying areas.

"Our responsibilities go beyond the metered areas," Mays said. "We'll save time with the new meters, and be able to provide more service elsewhere."

On Monday, Sean Stoddard was digging in his pockets for change after parking his truck downtown when he heard about the possibility of new meters.

"Good," Stoddard said. "Who carries cash around anymore?"

The Salt Lake City Council will hear the report findings today during its weekly work meeting at 3 p.m. A copy can be viewed via the council link at www.slcgov.org.
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