OCEAN CITY — With the aging parking meter system in place along the streets and certain municipal lots in the downtown area nearing the end of their useful life, resort officials this week approved sweeping changes to a new license plate-based system including the Inlet parking lot.
After a marathon presentation on Tuesday, the Mayor and Council approved a state-of-the-art parking payment and enforcement system for the streets and municipal lots in the downtown area to the tune of nearly $600,000. After considerable debate, the elected officials also approved the parking system for the Inlet lot, which has seen more than its share of issues in recent years.
The new system utilizes license plate reader technology and will result in a switch from the current “pay-and-display” system to a “pay-by-plate” system. Visitors and residents will still park wherever they find open spaces on the streets and municipal lots in the downtown area and visit a nearby kiosk to make payment arrangements for their desired time periods. However, instead of printing a receipt to be displayed on the dashboard of their vehicle, they will enter their license plate information. Parking enforcement officials will then be able to scan the vehicle’s license plate to determine if they have paid for parking and are not expired.
The Mayor and Council in November got their first look at the proposed technologically-advance license plate reader system. At the time, the elected officials endorsed the idea, but wanted a more detailed presentation on some of the features from the successful bidder.
In September, a Request For Proposal (RFP) was sent out for a replacement system, resulting in 11 replies from vendors. That list of 11 was then whittled down to four before a staff review resulted in a recommendation for Parkeon, an internationally recognized public parking system firm with systems in place in major cities all over the world.
Under the proposal, Parkeon would be the major system hardware and software supplier in conjunction with the Park-Mobile company, which will allow users to utilize mobile devices to make payment arrangements, and Gtechna, another industry leader in parking enforcement. Parkeon would essentially be the umbrella system provider, while Park-Mobile would handle the mobile applications and Gtechna would handle the enforcement side.
On Tuesday, City Engineer Terry McGean and Procurement Manager Catrice Parsons were joined by representatives from Parkeon, Park-Mobile and Gtechna in making a detailed presentation to the council. The presentation included an actual Parkeon parking kiosk in the council chambers along with demonstrations of the Park-Mobile applications and the Gtechna hand-held enforcement devices.
Despite the thoroughness of the presentations, the council still had many questions about the three-tiered system. McGean said the intent on Tuesday was to seek approval for the new system on the streets and municipal lots and revisit the Inlet lot as a separate issue. However, after hours of discussion, the council ultimately voted to approve the new system for the Inlet lot as well.
As a result, the Inlet lot will see sweeping changes in its parking system. The existing entrance and exit gates will be removed and new parking kiosks will be installed throughout the lot. In addition, license plate readers will be installed at the entrance to the Inlet lot, allowing the city to track which vehicles have paid or not paid for parking and provide a mechanism for collecting those fees.
The council ultimately approved the new “pay-by-plate” systems for the side streets, the municipal lots and the Inlet lot. The decision was made easier with the understanding the existing CALE system was failing and needed to be replaced.
For about 10 years, the city has used the CALE machine “pay-and-display” parking system, which involves residents and visitors using credit cards or cash for parking meters in the downtown area with varying degrees of success. The users find a parking space on the street or in one of the municipal lots, choose the time limit for their stay, pay with either a credit or debit card or change and then display the receipt on the dashboard of their vehicle.
However, while parking revenue continues to steadily increase, to the tune of about $4.2 million in income over expenses in fiscal year 2017 alone, the CALE system is showing its age and is now in need of replacement. City Engineer Terry McGean explained there was a time during the summer two years ago when the entire enforcement system went down and took three weeks to restore, resulting in around $50,000 in lost revenue.
In addition, many of the aging CALE machines experience down time in the summer, resulting in visitor and resident frustration and a growing number of calls for service. Also, because the paid parking receipts are printed and then displayed on the dashboard, there are hundreds of examples when parking enforcement officer simply can’t see the receipts and erroneously issue tickets for valid parkers.
“We had 592 voided tickets last year,” said McGean this week. “In over half of those, the customers had a valid receipt but the enforcement officer didn’t see it.”
The new “pay-by-plate” system includes many user-friendly elements, particularly the Park-Mobile feature, which will allow users to pay for parking with their cell phones or mobile devices, track the duration of their paid time and add more time if necessary.
“They can see where they parked,” said McGean. “There is also a duration countdown and they can go in and extend the duration if they need more time.”
When asked if the system would allow users to track where open spots were in particular areas in town, McGean said the technology exists, but wasn’t part of the current proposal.
“The only way to show availability of on-street parking would be to put something in the pavement and that would be very expensive,” he said. “The Inlet lot with its controlled in and out access points can be done.”
Some councilmembers praised the new system for its user-friendliness, especially the feature that shows the duration of paid parking and allows users to add more time remotely before getting a ticket. Councilman Dennis Dare said the system could also be set up to allow a user to pay for the extra time if he or she ran over by 10 or 15 minutes rather than paying the ticket.
“A parking ticket can ruin a vacation,” he said. “They are upset with themselves as much as they are with us. This could allow someone to pay for the expired time rather than getting a ticket. They would leave with a better impression.”
McGean said the Parkeon system has that capability, but it would be a policy decision by the council to add it.
“If you got a ticket, you can go within a certain amount of time and just pay for the expired time,” he said. “The system can be set up to do that.”
In addition, the new parking kiosks could be set up to allow users to pay their parking tickets on site rather than going to City Hall or the Public Safety Building, for example.
“I like the idea you can pay tickets at the kiosks,” McGean said. “That would eliminate folks from going to City Hall or the police station. I think sometimes people don’t pay the tickets because it’s a chore to figure out where to go.”
Not everyone was keen on the idea of allowing users to pay for the expired time to avoid getting a ticket. Councilman Wayne Hartman referenced an earlier policy decision that essentially would not penalize property owners from renting their residences without a rental license until they got caught.
“This is déjà vu for me,” he said. “It reminds me of the whole rental license discussion. If we’re allowing someone to pay the cost of expired amount of parking after getting a ticket, what’s the point of paying for parking up front to begin with.”
Councilman John Gehrig agreed, pointing out there would be no incentive for residents and visitors to pay for parking until after they were discovered.
“I agree,” he said. “I’d take the gamble. Why would I pay for parking if I can go later and pay if I got a ticket? I do like the idea of an advisory of some sort if the parking time is running down.”
Hartman also endorsed the feature that would provide users with a countdown or warning of sorts they were soon going to be in violation.
“Now, if you got a notice that your parking was getting ready to expire in say 15 minutes, I think that would be a user-friendly option,” he said.
Mayor Rick Meehan dismissed the notion some of the residents and visitors would find a way to skirt the system. He also said that anything that can be done to improve the user-experience, including the grace period for paying for overtime, should be explored.
“Honestly, I don’t think many of our visitors are trying to beat the system,” he said. “I think they want to do the right thing. Getting a ticket is a big deal. If they can come back within an hour and pay the difference instead of getting a ticket, I think that would be a good feature. We are a host community.”
The Ocean City Police Department (OCPD) is a strong supporter of the new pay-by-plate system. Captain Greg Guiton said the new system would eliminate many enforcement snafus.
“Everything about this improves efficiency,” he said. “Without a doubt this would make parking enforcement more efficient and eliminate some of the errors.”
McGean said the installation of the new system at the Inlet lot was a no-brainer for many reasons.
“It would reduce manpower, remove those ticket booths at the Inlet lot and eliminate those huge backups when everybody tries to leave at the same time on a summer night and add 72 spaces,” he said. “The net increase in revenue would be around $200,000. With the $200,000 increase in revenue in just one year, it would pay for the entire citywide system within five years. We think that’s conservative and we think we can do even better than that.”
One interesting feature of the Inlet lot’s new system would be the license plate readers installed at the entrance to the lot. In that way, if a visitor decides to avoid the kiosks altogether, the town will still have the ability to track when they entered and left the lot and how much they owed for parking. The first step would be a notice in the mail reminding them they needed to pay for parking at the Inlet, followed by a stronger ticket issuance if they did not comply.
“If you don’t pay at the kiosks within the grace period, you will get a bill in the mail for unpaid charges and processing costs,” said McGean. “We’re going to capture the unpaids either way. It will still capture their information and bill them. The goal is to make compliance as user-friendly as possible.”
Gehrig was not keen on the apparent rush to approve the new system without getting answers to all of the questions. He questioned if the pace of the approval process should be slowed.
“During strategic planning, we talked a lot about parking,” he said. “I’d like to see us do this in reverse and figure out what to do with the Inlet lot first. Parking is one of our biggest issues and it’s a big driver of revenue. What’s the drop-dead date for getting this done for the summer?”
McGean explained making a decision by the end of the year would be ideal. He said it would likely take about 16 weeks to coordinate all of the moving components with the system.
Gehrig said while he understood the existing CALE system was beginning to fail, he wondered if more time should be spent on what could be a $1 million expenditure.
“I think there is a lot for us to decide on,” he said. “In my opinion, it seems like a nice thing to have, but it is not a drop-dead thing we need to have today. I’m definitely intrigued. I just think we need to discuss parking in general. I just think we need to take some more time. I don’t think we need to be scared about launching this during the season.”
Meehan said the new system was a necessity at the Inlet lot where long lines of traffic often stack up attempting to leave the lot at peak times.
“One of the problems we have with the Inlet lot is people having to wait sometimes for hours to leave,” he said. “It can back up for two hours and then we have people paying for the time they waited in line. On a few occasions over the years, we just had to open the gates and let everyone leave.”
McGean cautioned about waiting too long to pull the trigger on the new parking system.
“If you want to make this decision, it has to be done very soon,” he said. “If not, you need to tell us soon so we can get out the string and duct tape and hold this old system together for another year. This is a pretty significant change and it’s not something we need to do in mid-season.”
However, Gehrig continued to urge his colleagues to put the brakes on what he characterized as a rash decision.
“I just don’t think we need to be making a major decision on this when we have so many questions,” he said. “I never like making big decisions when I feel like I’m backed into a corner.”
McGean said he understood the concerns, but said there was ample time to answer any and all questions once the process was set in motion.
“If you have specific questions, we have everybody here to answer them,” he said. “I know you don’t want to be backed into a corner, but please don’t back us into a corner with scrambling to get this done at the last minute.”
After considerable debate, the council voted 6-1 with Gehrig opposed to approve the purchase of the new Parkeon parking system on the streets and municipal lots including the Inlet lot.