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Police keep Downtown clear -- of tourists

| Sunday, Oct. 22, 2006

Let's get this out of the way first: Thomas Martineau should not have parked his car where he did when he did.

In readily admitting that fact, however, Martineau exposes what appears to be a problem with the Pittsburgh Visitor Center -- one that has left the Milwaukee-area resident less than eager to return to town.

Martineau, 59, a retired insurance broker, recently stopped in Pittsburgh overnight while on an extended trip to visit several cities. Being his first time here, he was unsure where he should stay.

Driving Downtown, he spotted the visitor center on Liberty Avenue near the State Office Building. Figuring the staff could recommend suitable accommodations, he parked his car and went inside.

That proved to be a mistake.

Martineau will tell you why.

"It was 4:05 or so when I went into the center," he said. "I was in there waiting for maybe three minutes when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the policeman outside."

Writing the parking ticket, of course.

"I ran out there and said, 'Look, I'm just trying to get some directions here,'" Martineau said. "The policeman told me, 'We have to keep this area cleared.' I looked around, and there wasn't a damn car on the street at the time."

Like many Downtown streets, parking along that portion of Liberty is prohibited during the weekday afternoon rush hour, which begins promptly at 4 p.m., no matter what the traffic conditions.

That was the injury.

Then the cop handed him the ticket.

Add one insult.

"I couldn't believe it," Martineau said. "Ninety-one dollars for a parking violation• That's crazy."

If he thought the fines and associated court costs were exorbitant, he obviously didn't test the rates in a Downtown parking garage during his stay. Good thing. It might have soured him even more on the city.

Returning to the visitor center, Martineau found the staffer sympathetic.

"The welcome lady was so apologetic," he said. "She told me that this happens all the time."

Not exactly an ideal way to make a favorable impression on first-time visitors, is it?

"I haven't been to every city in the country, but the tourist centers that I have visited have all had adequate parking for tourists," Martineau said. "I understand now why that is."

The police officer was only doing his job in enforcing rush-hour parking restrictions. Martineau, however, suspects sinister motives might be behind the lack of dedicated parking for the visitor center.

"The thought did occur to me that this might be a tourist trap, a good place for handing out tickets," he said. "I would be curious to know just how much revenue is generated for the city by unsuspecting visitors."

I attempted to talk to officials at VisitPittsburgh, the former Greater Pittsburgh Convention & Visitors Bureau, about Martineau's experience on Friday. Agency officials had no immediate comment.

Martineau, who doesn't plan to return here at rush hour or any other time, remains irked.

"When I sent in my fine," he said, "I signed the ticket 'Innocent Tourist.'"

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