Boulder to roll out photo parking enforcement

Scofflaws and dilly-dalliers beware: The city of Boulder is stepping up its parking enforcement with a vehicle-mounted camera system that can check license plates faster than any parking officer could.
20101027__28dcalicw_300[1].jpgTwo years after the City Council first approved the idea, Boulder parking officials are finalizing a contract with Genetec -- a technology and security company based in Montreal, Canada -- to buy a state-of-the-art automatic license plate reader that officials say will revolutionize parking enforcement in the city.

With a price tag of about $46,000, the heart of the AutoVu system is a vehicle-mounted camera that can recognize license plates as fast as a parking officer is driving, at angles as sharp as 90 degrees. An integrated computer system compares the plates to a database of parking scofflaws, and can pick out vehicles that have been parked too long in pay-to-park or neighborhood parking zones.

"We're going to be really efficient at what we're doing," said Eric Guenther, Boulder's assistant manager for parking services.

The computer also has GPS tracking, to mark the exact location of cars as a parking officer passes. In areas that are under the city's Neighborhood Parking Program -- where non-residents can only park for a few hours a day -- the system will send an alert to officers to check the area every few hours to identify vehicles that have overstayed their time.

Vehicles registered to park in the restricted zones will automatically be exempt from time violations along those streets.

The AutoVu camera captures pictures of a violator's license plate, a color image of the vehicle and the date and time of the violation. A ticket is automatically printed in the car, which officers must still place on windshields by hand.

The AutoVu will be installed on one of the city's existing Toyota Rav4 SUVs by the end of the year, Guenther said. He said the system could pay for itself within months.

"Other cities and parking agencies that have used it said they've seen returns in six months," Guenther said.

So far, the camera is only slated to operate in University Hill, downtown and their outlying areas. The city will initially focus on using the camera to find anyone who has a ticket that hasn't been paid 10 days after the court mailed a letter to the owner.

"The intent is not necessarily to increase ticket production" as much as it is to find drivers who owe the city money, Guenther said.

Vehicles on the scofflaw list can be booted or towed. Owners must pay the overdue tickets, in addition to $75 in fees.

Guenther said the city would consider expanding the camera system if it proves successful.

"I'm sure there's people who park outside (University Hill and downtown) who owe us money," he said. "We certainly could expand it."

Roy Calvo, a parking officer for the city, was busy handing out tickets Wednesday afternoon to drivers who didn't follow the rules.

Punching license plate numbers into his handheld computer, he said the new photo enforcement should make his job easier.

"We'll be able to cover so much more ground," he said. "It's going to be a lot more efficient. I think it's going to be a good thing."

Chris Bosh, a Boulder resident who was buying a parking pass at a city kiosk Wednesday, said he thinks there will be a mix of reactions to the new technology.

"If it saves us money in this economy, it's probably a good thing," he said. "Of course, it's Boulder. Someone is going to go crazy about civil liberties."

Similar technology has already been in place at the University of Colorado for about two years.

That camera system, mounted on a hybrid Toyota Prius, is used to scan campus parking lots and compare license plates to a database of CU parking permits.

Betsy Watts, an administrative assistant at CU's parking services division, said the $65,000 car and camera package has been saving CU's parking officers time.

"They're able to read the plates very quickly," she said. "It's working very well."
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