By KEVIN McCALLUM
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Four years after ripping out hundreds of parking meters downtown, Santa Rosa is considering putting them back in, this time with high-tech versions meant to be more user-friendly than the much-maligned pay stations.
The move is in response to downtown merchants who say customers overwhelmingly prefer modern single-space meters, which accept credit and debit cards, to the city’s current multi-space kiosks, which spit out paper tickets drivers must place on their dashboards.
Downtown business owner Bernie Schwartz, whose survey was signed by more than 2,000 people, said there remains “significant dissatisfaction” with the current parking system.
“Our visitors and workers deserve the best possible parking experience, as do our current and future downtown residents,” said Schwartz, owner of California Luggage on Fourth Street.
The City Council will consider the issue on Tuesday. They’ll be asked whether to seek bids for the purchase of about 215 single-space “smart” meters, which accept credit and debit cards and can be programmed to charge different parking rates based on demand.
Mayor Scott Bartley said he’s in favor of investing in the new meters, even though the existing kiosks haven’t reached the end of their seven to 10-year life cycles. Downtown parking is a sensitive issue, and Bartley said he was pleased to see merchants stepping forward with a solution.
“We’re being responsive to people that have to deal with it intimately on a daily basis, and I think that’s a good thing,” Bartley said.
After a small pilot project in 2008, the city began replacing many of its 1,500 aging coin-operated meters with walk-up kiosks in 2009. The new system for the first time gave drivers the option of paying either by coin or card, considered a significant convenience in an age when fewer and fewer people carry cash.
Another advantage was that drivers who didn’t use all their time could take it with them. City leaders also said eliminating the rows of parking meters would declutter the downtown sidewalks and reduce the parking district’s operating costs because the larger kiosks wouldn’t need to be emptied of coins as often.
While many drivers adapted to the system, others bemoaned the change. Some were confused or annoyed by the need to find the kiosks, pay for time, and return to place the receipt on their dashboard. The disabled or merely lazy complained about the extra steps involved, even though the kiosks were rarely more than a few yards away. Some drivers reported getting $25 citations while trying to pay for parking.
Schwartz said the city worked hard to improve signage and help people get accustomed to the new system, but the steady stream of complaints from his customers persists.
Kim Nadeau, the head of the city’s parking division, said the multi-space meters were the right way to go at the time, but technology has advanced since then in much the same way cellular technology has changed.
It’s now possible to have all the functionality of the kiosks in a single-space meter without the need for slips of paper.
“In many instances customers find that it’s more convenient to have a meter right there at the space and have expressed that it’s a more intuitive experience for them,” Nadeau said.
Only about 30 of the 85 kiosks would be removed, and only those that are on the streets. They cost $7,150 each at the time. Those in parking lots, where they generate fewer complaints, will remain in place, Nadeau said. Many of the 30 units will be reinstalled in parking lots that don’t yet have them.
About 215 new single space meters costing about $500 each would be needed to cover Third, Fourth and Fifth streets between B and E streets. When the cost of new housings, poles and installation are considered, Nadeau estimates it will cost the district about $172,000 in total.
That money is already in the parking district budget for the next phase of the kiosk rollout, she said. The approximately $4 million in parking fee revenue per year funds the operations of the district. Ticket revenue funds the enforcement personnel while bonds financing the five parking garages are funded by property assessments, she explained.
The new units will be more expensive to operate, in part because each requires a monthly fee of $5.75 plus credit card transaction fees that typically run about 13 cents per swipe. That works out to about $20,000 more in operating expenses per year, though the actual figures won’t be known until the bids are submitted, she said.
Nadeau’s predecessor, Cheryl Woodward, had long argued that the city should seek to get the full return on its investment in the kiosks before entertaining new technologies. She retired last year.
“It’ll just be interesting to see where the decision ends up going,” Nadeau said. “There really are pros and cons to both.”
One of the exciting things about the proposal is that the new meters will allow the council to finally pursue demand-based parking principles that change prices based on demand, Bartley said.
For example rates could be $2 per hour during the evening dinner rush and 25-cents per hour on weekends or off-hours. The last time the city explored the idea, it “landed with a thud,” Bartley said.
But the new meters could make experimenting with such principles easier, he said.
“The technology in these meters will open the opportunities to do all these other things we’ve been talking about,” Bartley said.
(You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @citybeater)