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Pittsburgh's parking kiosk system pays off

| Saturday, Jan. 11, 2014, 12:03 a.m.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Jason and Ashley Kurz of Brookyln, N.Y., look perplexed as they use an electronic parking meter station along Smithfield Street, Downtown, on Friday, Dec. 27, 2013. 'We don't have these in New York,' said Jason.

The Pittsburgh Parking Authority doubled its daily parking meter take despite a few speed bumps in converting from the city's coin-operated machines to solar-powered kiosks that take credit cards and require license plate numbers.

“I do think technology is the way to go, and we are looking to expand what we have,” said David Onorato, Pittsburgh Parking Authority's executive director.

His agency has had to upgrade the system and educate customers about higher rates and new technology, an effort he said could continue this year as the authority rolls out a pay-by-smartphone application; it would allow customers to pay for their parking from anywhere. Parking officials in a few years could use handheld license plate scanners to log numbers instead of punching them in manually.

“Who doesn't have a cellphone or smartphone these days?” said Dave Webb, 31, an information technology specialist who lives in the North Side and uses the kiosks. “In terms of technology, I'm glad the Parking Authority is embracing it. I hope they continue that trend.”

Pittsburgh became the first city to use a pay-by-plate system when 12 stations began operating on the North Shore in July 2012. Of the city's approximately 8,700 metered parking spaces, nearly 7,000 — or about 80 percent — are covered by parking kiosks.

The change from old to new brought complaints, although the authority does not track them by number.

Many resulted from the electronic meters accepting payments on a free-parking Saturday during December, which resulted in the authority's refunding nearly $30,000 in charges.

Some have complained the electronic meters are confusing. Paying customers contested fines levied when they paid but entered incorrect license plate information.

Government officials from Seattle to cities in Europe have called to learn about the license plate approach, Onorato said.

“We're being recognized around the world,” he said of the system the Parking Authority paid Cale America Inc. of Tampa $7 million to implement.

The Parking Authority collects about $47,000 a day, up from about $22,000 per day from the coin machines, Onorato said.

City Council in late 2011 and again in late 2012 voted to raise rates for 7,000 on-street meters to help cover pension costs.

The city receives 6.5 percent of street meter revenue. Pittsburgh collected an estimated $2.6 million from the Parking Authority in the form of payments in lieu of taxes, according to the city's 2013 budget projection. The city was due to receive roughly $7.6 million from its share of tickets, boot fees and other fines collected by the Parking Court.

City officials could not be reached for comment.

In the 2011 fiscal year, the Parking Authority earned $7.1 million from its metered parking spaces. In 2012, that amount climbed to $9.2 million, and in 2013 — without December figures included — it increased to $12.2 million.

With the new system, charge cards account for about four of every five dollars collected, Onorato said.

Over Thanksgiving, the authority updated its meter technology to give customers the option of using credit or debit cards in 25-cent increments after an initial $1 payment as long as they do not exceed the maximum time limit for their parking spaces.

The system changed again this year to refuse to accept payments on Sundays, rather than just inform people that parking is free on Sundays. They're not programmed to refuse payments after hours; in many places, payment is not required after 6 p.m., but some unsuspecting drivers pay anyway.

Webb said he was surprised to learn he could pay and park at one meter and then repark elsewhere without paying again during a shopping trip that took him from a meter on East Ohio Street to one on Federal Street in the North Side.

It's not like the coin machines on which you pay for the space, Onorato said.

“Now you can take it with you,” he said.

In coming months, the Parking Authority will begin using license plate recognition equipment aboard roving vehicles to monitor parking in the city's 32 residential permit areas, where parking is restricted to residents with special decals or limited to no more than two hours for others.

The authority began using plate recognition cameras in 2006 to find and boot vehicles with outstanding parking tickets.

“It's just much more efficient than having someone do it by foot,” Onorato said.

Jason Cato is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7936 or jcato@tribweb.com.

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