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Drivers to 'pay by plate' for Detroit parking

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — The city is rolling out a high-tech parking system this summer that aims to give drivers more options to pay for spots by using technology tied to their license plates.

Detroit's Chief Operating Officer Gary Brown says the city has a $3 million contract with a Tampa-based firm that will transform its metering system to "pay-by-plate," rather than by space.

The technology allows drivers to access a meter kiosk, enter in their license plate number and park in any space within a specific zone.

Customers can feed coins, or credit or debit cards into the kiosks; or buy parking time via a mobile app, or by calling a toll-free number 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

"The overarching goal is to write less tickets, to give people every opportunity to feed the meter so they do not get a ticket and to spur economic development," Brown said. "This system we know will produce less tickets because you are going to have more options to pay the meter."

The city will monitor compliance using license plate recognition software. It can be used to scan plates and let enforcement officers know whether a vehicle has purchased time.

Brown says it will be more efficient than the current method, which requires workers to drive down the street and look at a meter to see if it's expired.

Installation is expected to begin outside the city center this month or in early April. It's expected that the system will be fully operational by June. The first area to get the new technology will be Detroit's "Avenue of Fashion" on Livernois between Seven Mile and Eight Mile.

Once completed, Detroit's system will feature 300 meter kiosk pay stations to control about 3,000 parking spaces. Single-meter spaces will still be maintained in some areas.

Brown says the city's Law Department is currently drafting an ordinance to go before Detroit's City Council that would allow the city to take advantage of the features of the new technology and its flexibility with regard to rates.

Right now, Detroit has a uniform $1-per-hour rate for parking. Brown says he'll be asking the council to approve changes that will allow for various zones with different rates. The technology allows the parking department to go in and change the structure of the rates, but the ordinance, as is, doesn't.

The city is working with the Downtown Detroit Partnership and Chicago-based parking consultant Desman to determine time limits and zones, he said.

Other Michigan cities including Ferndale, Royal Oak, Grand Rapids, Petoskey and Dearborn have updated their parking technology in recent years with pay-by-phone mobile applications.

Those systems require users to input a space number and desired time and produces a receipt to place in vehicles' windshields.

Brown says the plate technology will not only allow drivers to pay for parking time, but gives them the flexibility to move to different spaces within specified zones, ranging from 15 minutes to two hours, without having to initiate a new transaction.

"The time is good, no matter where you park," he said.

Pittsburgh was the first city in the country to roll out the license plate parking technology. It has since served as a model, with city officials consulting with other communities, including Detroit.

Pittsburgh began installing its machines in July 2012 and completed the process in late 2013. Today, it has 908 meter kiosks that control a total of 8,707 on and off-street parking spaces, says David Onorato, executive director of the Public Parking Authority of Pittsburgh.

"We do believe this is the trend for everyone going forward," he said. "You can go in any direction you want and pay at the first meter (station) you come to. Up the street, down the street or across the street. We don't identify any spaces on our streets."

The move, coupled with a rate increase for the first time in over 25 years, has increased gross revenues by about 35 percent, Onorato said.

In addition, the city has seen a compliance rate of about 76 percent and meter violations have gone down about 10 percent, he said.

Last year in Detroit, it was reported that approximately half of the city's 3,196 on-street meters didn't operate properly.

Brown says it's unclear today what percentage are operational. But he did say that since the first of the year, the city has been replacing broken meters with new ones in areas such as the Avenue of Fashion and near the Wayne County Community College District.

"We had 3,000 out there. How many aren't working? I'm not really sure," Brown said. "But when we find they are not working we are sending out people every day to put in a temporary stand-alone meter until March."

Former emergency manager Kevyn Orr approved a new rate schedule for parking fines last spring.

The increase — Detroit's first in more than a decade — began on June 1 and bumped tickets from $30, $50 and $80 to $45, $65 and $95, respectively, for parking violations and late fees. The new schedule also eliminated a $10 rate for early payment.

Fines for handicapped parking violations climbed from $100 to $150, with late fees for payments after 30 days rising to $170 for state residents and $200 for nonresidents.

The ticket increases are among the revenue-generating strategies that have been recommended by Detroit's restructuring consultants.

Detroit had been paying $32 to issue and process a $30 parking violation. The new system is expected to reduce annual operations and maintenance costs — and hopefully will allow the city to reduce the parking fines to a more "reasonable" rate, says Brown.

Craig Vanderburg, president of the Palmer Woods Neighborhood Association, agreed it's becoming "more challenging" to find a spot in the bustling Avenue of Fashion shopping district. He's not sure that the new technology will do much to alleviate the problem.

"The bigger issue in that area is basic availability of spots for shoppers versus the small amount of traffic that is in the area," he said. "That would be the next thing that needs to be addressed for sure."

The Municipal Parking Department will maintain and operate the system. The technology improvements will reduce staffing needs, but won't result in layoffs. The adjustments will be made through attrition or employees will be offered other jobs, Brown said.