OCEAN CITY — Resort transportation officials this week reviewed the first year of the town’s new “pay-by-plate” parking system, which revealed revenue was generally down across the board although some areas did better than others.
Prior to the start of the last summer season, Ocean City transitioned from the old pay-and-display system to a new pay-by-plate system.
Under the old system, visitors and residents would pay at kiosks at the Inlet lot, the various municipal lots around town and in certain areas on public streets and display the receipts on their dashboards. Last year, however, the Mayor and Council approved the new system in all areas where paid parking was available. Residents and visitors pay for a certain amount of time at the new kiosks and the payment amount and time allotted are assigned to the vehicle’s license plate.
The new system was implemented on the streets where paid parking was available, at the municipal lots and at the Inlet lot. At the Inlet lot, the new system also included a license plate reader at the entrance to record when a certain vehicle entered and left the lot in order to capture those who came in and parked but did not utilize the new Parkeon pay-by-plate kiosks.
The end result of all of those changes was a net loss in parking revenue for the town in the first year, the transportation committee learned this week, although some areas did better than others. Overall, parking revenue in the first year under the new system was down about one percent over the prior year.
For example, the Inlet lot netted $2.3 million in parking revenue in 2018 compared to around $2.4 million in 2017, representing a decline of about 4 percent. Net revenue from the paid street parking in 2018 came in at around $1.14 million, down from the $1.22 million collected in 2017, representing a decrease of around 6 percent. Finally, the parking revenue from the various municipal lots dropped from $1.08 million in 2017 to $904,000 in 2018, for a decrease of about 16 percent.
“We examined the parking revenue in three major categories including street parking, municipal lot parking and Inlet lot parking,” City Engineer Terry McGean told the committee on Tuesday. “We wanted to take a close look at what worked and what didn’t work and see how we can best go forward. Unfortunately for 2018, we were down early and never recovered and ended up down for the year.”
One eye-opener that came out of the information presented on Tuesday was a steep spike in the amount of parking fines and other fees in 2018. The total amount of fines and fees jumped from $169,720 in 2017 to $483,357 in 2018, representing an increase of 185 percent. However, McGean explained much of that was attributed to guests’ unfamiliarity with the new system and, consequently a frustration with how to use it.
“The fines were way up, but that was not the intent of the new system and that’s not how we want to make our money,” said McGean. “Much of that had to do with the new system. I’d like to see that number go down significantly and I think it will when people become more familiar with the new system in the second year.”
Overall, the Inlet lot invoices totaled around $850,000 in 2018 although about $200,000 of that was eventually voided when it became apparent some of the fees were captured erroneously by the new system. McGean explained that left around $600,000 owed for tickets, of which the town had collected about half thus far.
“We’re running at around a 50-percent collection rate, but we still have payments coming in and that is expected to improve,” he said. “In some states including Maryland, renewing registration is tied to cleaning up any outstanding fines, so we’re seeing some of that. It’s something we want to keep an eye on.”
Another big takeaway from Tuesday’s presentation were the problems experienced with the Inlet lot on the Fourth of July, perhaps the single biggest day for the lot. The intent of the new pay-by-plate system, along with the license plate reader at the entrance, was to eliminate the old ticket booths and the long lines often associated with entering and exiting the lot, especially on the Fourth of July.
However, the new system did not alleviate the long lines exiting the Inlet lot on the Fourth, although that was more likely caused by the amount of traffic leaving the lot at the same time and flooding the overwhelmed downtown streets than a failure of the new parking payment system.
“It was two-and-a-half hours before cars started moving from the Inlet lot onto Baltimore Avenue,” said Councilman Mark Paddack, who was then an Ocean City police officer. “It was unbelievable.”
However, Mayor Rick Meehan said that particular instance was a reflection of the Fourth of July in a crowded downtown area and not a reflection of the failings of the new parking system.
“That’s a Fourth of July issue,” he said. “With the old ticket booth system, on the Fourth of July, or when it rained or an event just ended, the cars would stack up at the booths trying to pay and leave. Around 99 percent of the time, with the exception of maybe the Fourth of July, the new system alleviated that for much of last summer.”
Nonetheless, the issues were severe enough to warrant a change back to the old flat rate pay system for the Inlet lot on the Fourth of July. For years, the town charged a flat rate to park at the Inlet on the Fourth, starting at $50 early in the day and dropping to $30 after 3 p.m. and $20 after 6 p.m. With the new system in place last summer, the staggered flat-fee structure was eliminated and guests just used the kiosks as they would on any other year.
However, McGean on Tuesday recommended going back to the flat-fee system at the Inlet lot on the Fourth of July and the committee voted to send a favorable recommendation to the full Mayor and Council. McGean recommended a flat fee of $40 all day at the Inlet on the Fourth and not the staggered fee system in place in prior years.
“The Fourth of July revenue was down at the Inlet lot,” he said. “We’re recommending an all-day flat fee of $40 from midnight to midnight. It would be difficult to do the staggered rate with the new system and we’re not recommending that.”
Paddack pointed out that under the new system in place at the Inlet this year, especially on the Fourth of July, many vehicles saw their rates go up while they sat in line trying to leave for hours. McGean said the town was responsive to that situation, however.
“We voided a lot of those on the Fourth,” he said. “We set a threshold and that didn’t change after they reached a certain amount of time because they were sitting in line trying to leave.”
Overall, the new paid parking system, especially at the Inlet lot, was fraught with issues, largely because of the learning curve. For example, many guests were not certain how to use the new kiosks or waited in line to get to the kiosks. Other waited in line, only to realize they had to enter their license plate numbers which they hadn’t memorized. In addition, there were peak times when it appeared there weren’t enough kiosks available to serve the traffic flow.
McGean explained there were plans in place to eliminate some of those issues. For example, two kiosks will be moved from lesser-used areas in the municipal lots or on the street. In addition, the proposed budget calls for the addition of another parking “ambassador,” or an individual who assists visitors with navigating the new system. The plan going forward also includes better signage and a ramped-up outreach and education program for new users.
Still, there are technical issues to resolve with the new system. For example, McGean said the old system printed a ticket or receipt which the visitor would place on his or her dashboard. Enforcement officers would then read the receipts in the dashboard and issue tickets when appropriate. However, the new system is completely electronic and there were times when it went down.
“The new system is in real time and there were times when communication was lost between kiosks and the hand-helds carried by the enforcement officers and some of the readings would come up as unpaid,” he said. “Luckily, a lot of people were used to the old system and put their receipts on their dashboards anyway.”
On a brighter note, McGean said more people used the Park-Mobile app on their cell phones or other mobile devices last year than ever before and the numbers back that up. For example, there were 26,000 parking transactions on Park Mobile in 2017 compared to nearly 120,000 in 2018. The revenue collected through the Park Mobile app went from $131,000 in 2017 to $678,000 last year. In addition, the number of new users of the Park Mobile app went from 11,000 in 2017 to 46,000 in 2018.