Ocean City Looking At New License Plate-Based Parking System

A current Cale parking system kiosk is pictured at the Worcester Street parking lot. File Photo

OCEAN CITY — The current parking meter system throughout the downtown area could be replaced with a new and improved license plate-based system to the tune of nearly $600,000, Ocean City officials learned this week.

For over a decade, the CALE machine parking system – which features street side modules accepting credit cards and even cash — has been in place with varying degrees of the success. The users enter a credit or debit card or cash then choose length of their visit, then display the receipt on the dashboard of their vehicle.

Ocean City Police Department (OCPD) meter readers can then walk the streets and determine which vehicles have gone past their allotted time and issue citations as appropriate. In some cases, the vehicle owners can use the recently added park-mobile system, thereby avoiding the need for a printed receipt on the dashboard and allotting the amount of time paid for through the vehicle’s license plate.

However, the CALE system first implemented over a decade ago in 2005 has outlived its useful life, causing resort officials to begin exploring a replacement system. On Tuesday, the full Mayor and Council got their first look at the technologically advanced license plate reader system that would allow the end user to purchase parking time at a kiosk or through a mobile device and attach the allotted time to the vehicle’s license plate, thereby eliminating the paper receipt displayed on the dashboard.

The new system will not come cheap, however, with an estimated cost of around $600,000, around $420,000 of which would be an up-front expenditure for the roughly 70 multi-space meters with a new full-color display and back-lit keyboard for entering license plate information. The balance of the estimated $600,000 expenditure would cover the cost of the various software and hardware expenditures for the new system.

The preferred bidder for the new system, Parkeon, presented the proposal to the town’s transportation committee last month. On Tuesday, public works officials outlined the proposal for the full Mayor and Council. No decision was made by the full council, which will get its own presentation of the new system by Parkeon at next week’s regular meeting. Mayor Rick Meehan suggested the full council get an opportunity to view the presentation before making a decision on the rather costly expenditure.

“This got a favorable recommendation from the transportation committee,” he said. “I think the full Mayor and Council needs to see the demonstration we saw at the committee level.”

There is some urgency for making a decision on the new parking management system. Public Works Director Hal Adkins explained there was a fairly tight timeline for getting the system in place in time for the next summer season. Procurement Manager Catrice Parsons said the contract would need to be finalized by the end of December for the system to be in place in time for the summer of 2018.

The current CALE system in place through much of the downtown area was introduced as a pilot program in 2015 with a full roll-out in 2016. However, despite the early successes of the program, it is now nearing the end of its useful life.

“This is a necessary first step,” said Public Works Supervisor for Maintenance Tom Dy. “The technology has evolved. The equipment is out of date and most of it is not ADA compliant. The average meter out there is seven to 10 years old.”

Dy explained the current CALE system has created some enforcement issues for the OCPD.

“With the play-and-display system, there are some enforcement issues,” she said. “The users walk the ticket back to their vehicle and place it on their dashboard or somewhere else on the vehicle and the OCPD has to find the ticket. Sometimes, they are obscured or slip down below where they are clearly visible. It creates some enforcement issues.”

Parsons agreed the new system represented a significant upgrade from the current outdated system.

“We want to get away from the play-and-display system and go to the pay-by-plate,” she said. “It will greatly improve the enforcement side of it. They will be able to know immediately if it is a valid parking ticket.”

The new system will allow users to enter credit card information with the preferred chip system, which is not currently available with the existing CALE machines, according to Public Works Assistant Superintendent for Maintenance John Van Fossen.

“The CALE machines are not set up to handle that,” she said. “For one, they can’t handle the chip system and they aren’t ADA compliant. Those are the main reasons, plus, with the age of the equipment they have outlived their useful life.”

There could be some payroll expense-saving with the new system, according to Dy. Currently, the Public Works Department deploys technicians to respond quickly when a visitor or resident has a problem with a specific CALE machine. The proposed new system could eliminate the need for some of those technicians.

“We have CALE technicians available throughout the season and they are working constantly,” said Dy. “It’s an ongoing issue. The issues may seem small to us, but when the meters don’t work for the end user, it becomes a big problem.”

Meehan said overall the proposed new Parkeon system would be more customer-friendly for the end user.

“There are a lot of customer-friendly features,” he said. “That’s why we need the vendor to come in and make a presentation to the full Mayor and Council. A lot of questions will be answered by that.”

Council Secretary and Transportation Committee member Mary Knight said the proposed new system would allow visitors and residents to move their vehicles freely through the downtown area because the paid parking would be attached to the vehicle license plate and not the particular parking space.

“It’s a really nice service,” she said. “If somebody pays for three hours downtown, say, and they decide to go up to 10th Street for dinner or whatever, the paid parking stays with the license plate and not the parking space.”

The proposed system also includes a License Plate Reader (LPR) system that could allow law enforcement to identify those vehicles with arrest warrants or other violations attached. Currently, the OCPD deploys LPRs at the entrances to the resort to pick up information on drivers with warrants etc. and the new system would allow for a similar effort on the street. Overall, the LPR-based system would improve parking enforcement and eliminate some errors during which citations are issued to vehicles not in violation, according to Van Fossen.

“The struggle right now is with enforcement,” he said. “The officer first has to look for the receipt on the dashboard, then they have to check the license plate because maybe they used the park-mobile system. This system would eliminate a lot of that.”

Meehan advocated for the approval of the proposed system in time for the 2018 summer season, although no decision will be made by the full council until after Parkeon makes its presentation as soon as next Monday.

“We’re a customer-based economy and all of these things are important,” said Meehan. “If we can find a way to make this system more customer-friendly, we should do that.”

About The Author: Shawn Soper

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Shawn Soper has been with The Dispatch since 2000. He began as a staff writer covering various local government beats and general stories. His current positions include managing editor and sports editor. Growing up in Baltimore before moving to Ocean City full time three decades ago, Soper graduated from Loch Raven High School in 1981 and from Towson University in 1985 with degrees in mass communications with a journalism concentration and history.