OCEAN CITY — The new “pay by plate” parking system at the Inlet lot performed as expected on its first real test on the Fourth of July, but it could not prevent the gridlock that snarled downtown traffic after the holiday fireworks display.
Prior to the start of the summer season, the traditional gated system at the Inlet lot came down and was replaced with a new pay-by-plate system with license plate reader (LPR) technology. Under the new system, drivers entering the lot can use one of the many kiosks to enter their license plate information to pay for the amount of time they expect to use. The system also includes LPRs at the entrance and exit to the Inlet lot that records arrival and departure times for those who do not use the kiosks or the app on their cell phones or other mobile devices.
One of the stated goals of the new Parkeon system with LPR technology was to eliminate the old gated system where visitors would get a ticket on the way in and present it at the gate on the way out to determine how much the fees would be. One of the flaws with the old gated system was the amount of time it took for vehicles leaving the lot, often all at once, to get through the payment system and back onto the downtown streets.
While the new system has been in place all summer, albeit with a learning curve for new users, the first major test came on the Fourth of July on Wednesday. The lot was full by mid-morning and vehicles streamed in and out all day. However, when the fireworks were over and several hundred cars attempted to leave the Inlet lot all at one time, the backups started and for some it took about two hours to get out of the Inlet lot. Once out of the log, traffic jams awaited in every direction.
However, town officials on Thursday said the backups were likely the result of the saturation on the streets as several hundred vehicles attempted to leave the downtown area at the same time. Former State Highway Administration District Engineer Donnie Drewer was fond of saying one can’t put 10 gallons of water into a five-gallon bucket, especially when talking about the shortcomings of the congested streets in the downtown area in the context of the capacity of the Route 50 Bridge. It appears that same principle applied on Wednesday with the hundreds of cars attempting to leave the Inlet lot with nowhere to go on the congested streets.
“I understand it became gridlock trying to exit and some will tell you it took up to two hours to leave,” said Public Works Director Hal Adkins on Thursday. “But if that was the case, it was not a function or fault of the lot and the Parkeon system. It was the overall level of traffic in comparison to the capacity of the roadway system downtown including Baltimore and Philadelphia avenues.”
Adkins said the Inlet was filled to capacity at around 9:50 a.m. on Wednesday with each of the roughly 1,267 spots taken. All in all, there were 3,112 transactions recorded at the Inlet lot throughout the day, suggesting the spaces turned over about two-and-a-half times. Adkins said many visitors chose to circulate around the lot looking for a vacant spot even after the Inlet lot reached capacity.
The lot was filled to capacity throughout the evening hours leading up to the holiday fireworks show, and when the display was over, most of those 1,200-plus vehicles attempted to leave at the same time and the result was the same gridlock seen in past years with the old gated system.
One of the functions of the new parking system at the Inlet lot records license plate information at the entrance and exit and if a vehicle did not pay for the total amount of time on the lot, the owner will be sent a bill in the mail for the extra time along with a processing fee. However, it is likely most of the vehicles that waited two hours to leave the Inlet lot on Wednesday went passed their allotted time unless they continued to add more with the mobile parking app and many will receive bills in the mail.
“In the interest of total transparency, it will be interesting to see how the LPR issue handles a person who may have been stuck trying to exit the lot for hours and then comes up on the LPR in default of the additional time, thus resulting in a fine in the mail,” said Adkins.
While away on vacation, City Engineer Terry McGean said on Thursday the town would likely figure out how best to handle those vehicles that exceeded their allotted time while waiting to leave the lot.
“I’m sure we can come up with a way to make allowances for the back-up,” he said.