December 31, 2004 Friday
SECTION: NATIONAL; Pg. 1
LENGTH: 1709 words
HEADLINE: New meters to bring new ways to buy time;
But they also require hike from car and back
BYLINE: By Frank Donze , Staff writer
With a control panel that looks like the dashboard of a state-of-the-art sportscar, they have begun cropping up on downtown curbsides. ATM machines? Gas pumps? Guess again.
They're the latest generation of parking meters, 6-foot-tall replacements for the old-time bubbles on a stick that have eaten dimes and quarters for decades.
City officials insist you won't need a degree in computer science to make them work, though it will help to be thoroughly comfortable with your cell phone. And a certain amount of hiking will be required, from your car to the meter and back again.
But after much anticipation, this much can be said for sure: They're here -- and almost operational.
City Hall's oft-heard promise that new, high-tech parking meters soon will be hitting the streets of New Orleans had taken on the hollow ring of "The check is in the mail" and "Your table will be ready in a minute."
For more than 10 years running, three successive mayoral administrations heralded the imminent arrival of cutting-edge meters that would accept "smart" debit cards, eliminating the dreaded scramble for pocket change that's never quite enough.
The debit cards still are in the offing. But the first of the futuristic meters, which cost about $7,500 apiece, began popping up around town about a month ago, and they eventually will allow motorists to use credit cards as well as coins -- and even an option, the first of its kind in the United States, to pay for parking by cell phone.
Nagin administration officials said this week that they expect the new system to be running by mid-January and pledged that the "smart" cards and cell phone option will be operational later in 2005.
The project is being handled by a 50-50 partnership between Standard Parking, a national firm that has operated parking lots in New Orleans for 25 years, and Parking Solutions LLC, a local minority-owned company with political ties to City Hall.
The Nagin administration has signed a three-year, $2.1 million contract with the joint venture, including options for three one-year renewals. The company is responsible for operation and maintenance of the meters, which the city projects will generate $4.5 million in 2005, a 15 percent increase over this year's take.
Ultimately, plans call for 400 of the new meters to be scattered about the Central Business District, the French Quarter, the Warehouse District, along Magazine Street and in the Uptown and downtown medical districts. About half of them have been installed so far, with the balance of the job scheduled to be completed by Feb. 1.
The joint venture owns the meters but the city will acquire them under a lease-purchase arrangement. Under the contract, leasing fees will come out of the city's monthly payment of $173,000.
The city will own the meters at the end of the six-year agreement. Their estimated life span is 10 to 12 years.
The space-age look of the new meters, which dwarf the old model, has drawn criticism from some residents of the French Quarter, who say the green towers are out of scale for the historic neighborhood.
"We've heard from some people who say the meters are too modern for areas like the Quarter and Magazine Street," said Mark Boucree, Parking Solutions' chief operating officer. "But we think once everyone sees the convenience they offer, they'll get used to them."
Administration officials hope to put the meters in operation in stages, with the first areas set to go on line in about two weeks, after signage is in place and an informational campaign is under way.
In addition to accepting credit cards and debit cards, the new meters -- like the ones now in use -- will take all coins except pennies. Paper currency, which company officials say has a tendency to jam the mechanism, cannot be used.
The city will retain about 1,000 of the 3,600 or so of the meters currently in use. Those meters, though they accept coins only, were designed to accept a "smart card," and officials with the company that installed them said they have long been ready to introduce one. But Nagin opted to go with the new meters instead.
Officials in the administration say a key selling point of the new devices was their ability to offer a "pay and display" system, already used in several U.S. and European cities, that lets motorists buy parking time that isn't tied to one particular space.
Under the system, two meters located in the middle of the block replace the six to 12 devices that now line many streets. Just like existing meters, the new ones will allow a motorist to buy up to two hours of parking time.
But instead of displaying the time remaining, the new machine spits out a receipt. A motorist will have to return to the vehicle and display the ticket -- which will prominently feature the expiration time -- on the dashboard.
Administration officials say the new system offers ancillary benefits: For one, motorists can move their car to another metered space while there is still time remaining on the ticket. Also, the printed receipt provides a handy record that can be used for accounting and reimbursement purposes.
More revenue expected
The administration's increased revenue projection is based on several factors.
Most important, city officials say the new system will bring the city revenue from 4,500 parking spaces citywide, an increase of about 900. Part of the increase will come from charging people to park in areas where parking is now free.
In addition, they say the new meters will allow a few extra parking spaces to be squeezed out of a street because there are no spaces per se. For example, parking areas that now contain seven striped spaces might now fit eight vehicles. But then, there's nothing to stop sloppy parkers from hogging space, thus reducing the number of customers.
Finally, under the new system, the administration says drivers now will take their unused parking time with them. As a result, no one will be able to park for free.
Old meters just paid for
The new meters are arriving just a few years after WorldWide Parking Inc., the Maryland-based company that formerly held the city parking meter contract, finished installing the current generation of meters. In fact, the Nagin administration made the final $400,000 payment on WorldWide's equipment just a few months ago.
WorldWide bid on the new contract, but the Nagin administration selected the local partnership in March, citing technological factors and the 50 percent minority participation.
WorldWide, which had no local partner, went to court to block the award of the contract, arguing that as the lowest responsible bidder, it should have been selected. The Nagin administration countered that the lowest-bid criterion was inapplicable because the contract is for a professional service.
The lawsuit was dismissed by a federal judge.
At the time of the contract award, Marc Meisel, president of WorldWide, questioned the administration's projections that the new meters would increase revenue. Furthermore, he said the meters now on the street likely would last another 25 years.
The new meters are solar-powered, but also have a battery back-up. The system is linked to a computer network that will allow company and city officials to monitor each meter and determine in real time whether it's working, how much revenue it has taken in and even whether it is low on paper for receipts.
Under its contract with the city, Parking Solutions must keep 98 percent of the meters in service at all times or face cash fines. Company officials said the computer monitoring system will allow them to fulfill that requirement easily.
Cell phone innovation
The ability to activate the meters by cell phone is their most radical innovation and a first of its kind in the United States, according to Boucree.
The system, invented by Mint Inc., a company based in Toronto, Canada, allows customers to purchase parking time without leaving their vehicles.
Motorists interested in using the service will first have to phone a number listed on the meter to set up an account that Boucree calls an "electronic wallet." Once a motorist has registered a name and license plate number with Mint Inc., the company will send the customer a windshield sticker that city parking control officers -- using hand-held computers -- can scan to determine whether the parking fee has been paid.
The company also will automatically phone customers a half-hour before their time at the meter expires. If they desire, customers also can call again to obtain more parking time -- up to a legal maximum of two hours.
Boucree said plans call for this payment system to be operating by May.
Chief Administrative Officer Charles Rice said the Nagin administration is looking into a change in the law that would permit a motorist -- for a nominal extra fee -- to park in a metered space for longer than two hours.
Plans call for the "smart" cards to be on sale by the summer.
Parking Solutions officials say they have started preliminary discussions with the Regional Transit Authority to develop a single debit card that could be used on parking meters, buses and streetcars.
Parking Solutions is owned by three local African-American businessmen. In recent months, Nagin has touted the 50-50 partnership as a prime example of his administration's commitment to steer government work to black-owned companies.
Two of the local firm's principals, Keith Pittman and Tyrone Rodgers, have ties to the administration.
Pittman and Rodgers are former business partners of developer Sean Cummings, a Nagin appointee who heads the New Orleans Building Corp., which is responsible for selling or developing certain city-owned properties.
Rodgers is the stepson of public-relations executive Bill Rouselle, who has advised Nagin and who has close ties to the BOLD political organization. Pittman worked as an aide to City Councilman Oliver Thomas, a leader of BOLD.
Boucree recently resigned his management position with Standard Parking, where he oversaw 40 facilities for the company.
This is the second contract the Nagin administration has awarded to Standard Parking and Parking Solutions. In May, the partnership was hired to operate three parking lots for French Market Corp.