CAPE MAY — Paying for parking in town could be soon as easy as making a phone call.
The use of phones to pay for parking, which was introduced to neighboring Wildwood in 2010, is a concept a city parking committee is exploring. The city has about 1,400 parking meters and relies on the income, about $1 million a year, to help balance the city budget.
The convenience of being able to use a smart phone to pay for parking, say, from the beach or while out dining, is a big draw for a town whose economy is based on tourism. Meters have time limits in several areas of town, and this often involves coming back to feed quarters into them.
The downside is some residents and visitors to the city will not embrace the new technology. The city gave out hundreds of parking tickets and was swamped with complaints a few years ago when it installed parking kiosks in a few selected areas of town. Part of the confusion was that individual parking spaces did not have meters, and some motorists assumed there was no charge to park there in spite of signage explaining the system.
“A lot of folks aren’t up to speed on the technology. If somebody paid with money, the system knows they paid with money,” said Deputy Mayor Bill Murray, a member of the committee.
One system the committee is looking at would retain the coin function of the meters to give motorists a choice. The city has more than 1,000 individual meter heads at parking spaces. There are also about 300 “pay and display” parking spaces. This is where a multi-meter head controls a number of spaces, and motorists get a receipt they put in their windshield.
The committee recently heard a presentation from Parkmobile, a company that sells high-tech parking systems. Parkmobile would provide a sticker for each meter in the system. The motorist registering for the service on line, or via a mobile app, could then use a cellphone to buy parking for that particular meter identified by the sticker.
Most local meters are activated on May 1. Parkmobile told the city it could have the system in place by Memorial Day.
But City Manager Bruce MacLeod does not expect a decision that quickly. He said one window period for starting the service could be before schools let out in June. If that is not met, another window is after Labor Day, to avoid a new system in the middle of summer. Meters stay on through October. MacLeod said any decision on installation is up to City Council.
“I think we have more investigation and review we want to do. There are other companies other than Parkmobile,” MacLeod said.
Such a system would involve some training for parking-meter police, who would check in electronically to see if a meter was paid, because without coins, it would not show any time remaining or a violation notice.
The Parkmobile system would not cost the city anything. Mike Sanocki, vice president of Parkmobile, said the company would make its money by charging motorists a transaction fee, probably 35 cents, whether people park for the minimum of 15 minutes or if they decide to max out the time allowed on a meter. Motorists would get a warning call from the company 15 minutes before time runs out. If the meter is about to expire, and the motorist calls in for more time, there would be another transaction fee.
“It’s 35 cents or $35,” said MacLeod, referring to the price of a parking ticket.
Another selling point by Parkmobile is the system could lead to more revenue. If a motorist leaves time on a coin-operated meter, the next motorist can use this time. With electronic transactions, any time left on a meter disappears.
“Theoretically, we could see an increase in revenue,” Murray said.
Sanocki said the technology was developed in Amsterdam in 1999. Now, 90 percent of the parking payments in that city are made by phone. Parkmobile also runs the system in Washington, D.C. Sanocki said it has a 55 percent participation rate. He said the systems are popular at train stations in Boston, because commuters running late can jump on the train and then call for their meter time. He also noted Rehoboth, Del,. has the Parkmobile system but still allows the meters to take change, an option the city is interested in.
MacLeod wants to make sure the five-minute grace period the city programs into the meters remains in place, which he said was instituted to be “user friendly and tourist friendly.” He said police would make sure it remains in place.
There are other issues, including the fact that the city has several dead zones for cellphone use and the cellphone towers sometimes can’t handle the number of calls on busy summer days. That presents another reason to retain the coin function.
Dennis Marco, who handles business development for Parkmobile, said the age bracket using the service is 18 to 39. Older motorists will stay with coins, he said.
“The older population is definitely not going to do it,” Marco said.
MacLeod sees an advantage to giving younger tourists the option.
“We want visitors to repeat their visit year after year. A person 30 now is, hopefully, coming back for the next 20 years,” MacLeod said.
John Cooke, who heads the Chamber of Commerce of Greater Cape May and sits on the committee, asked if businesses such as hotels and restaurants could use the system to buy time for their customers. Marco said this could be worked out.
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