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Big Brother might be watching your parking spot

Local officials insist that “smart meters” will create more available spaces, but merchants worry the stricter enforcement will keep customers away

The meters photograph a car’s license plate when time expires and sends the
information to local authorities, who then issue a ticket.

Getting away with overtime parking will become more difficult if the state Legislature expands the use of so-called smart meters, a move that would tighten enforcement but create headaches for merchants on main streets and in downtown shopping districts.

The meters work by snapping a photo of a person’s license plate and car when the allotted time expires, then sending that information to the local police department or parking enforcement agency. Later, the driver receives a parking ticket in the mail for the violation.

As towns and cities grow and develop, more drivers are drawn into business districts, putting a premium on parking space. So municipal officials have been seeking more creative means of managing that scarcity.

Many towns now use systems that accept credit cards and feature a mobile phone app to pay for or reserve a parking spot. Some meters use a flashing red light to indicate that paid time has expired so parking enforcement agencies know immediately which cars to ticket.

Current law requires the physical presence of an officer at the site of the violation. And with all the above systems, a driver can still get off scot-free if an officer does not actually see the expired meter and write a ticket.

Senate Bill 2579 would change that by authorizing towns to monitor parking meters remotely, rather than by inspecting every occupied space. Drivers in towns that opt in to the system would get a five-minute grace period after time expires to feed the meter or leave the spot. Otherwise, a photo is taken and a ticket issued.

The benefits for municipal coffers is obvious – increased collections from parking fines. But some business owners – especially those without their own parking lots – fear that tougher enforcement could discourage traffic and hurt sales.

The Assembly approved its version of the bill, Assembly Bill 4135, in February. Lawmakers pulled S2579, which is sponsored by Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-3rd District, from the March 14 Senate voting session and it is not clear when a vote might be scheduled.

Parking in Palisades Park

Palisades Park carried out a limited pilot program in 2016 and 2017 through the Administrative Office of the Courts, under which the Bergen County borough installed 20 smart meters in its downtown on Broad Avenue.

“It enables the spots to be properly monitored and turned over,” Palisades Park Borough Administrator David Lorenzo told NJBIZ. “You take out that factor where if it’s a worker or storekeeper or someone on the avenue who really should be parking a block away or using mass transit to get to work because they’re going to stay there all day, is now going to be forced to move the car.”

He added: “You created a spot on the street for the patrons, who will then turn it over for another patron.”

The borough of Palisades Park recently began using automated parking meters. Pictured is Palisades Park Borough Communications Manager Robert DeVito.

Lorenzo pointed out that the smart meters also free up resources that would be devoted to parking enforcement so they can be used elsewhere.

The borough lost four of its red light photo enforcement cameras in 2014 when the state Legislature allowed that program to lapse, which created a $400,000 hole in its budget. But Lorenzo insisted that the smart meters could not be used to recoup that amount or serve as a revenue stream.

With parking fines set at $30, the borough currently makes $250,000 a year from its roughly 500 parking meters, Lorenzo said. That amount would likely increase by at most $60,000 if and when they are all converted into smart meters, he explained.

“What the technology is designed to do is have people pay for parking. Statistically, 50 percent of the people who park at a meter never pay,” said Brian Cassidy, an executive at Municipal Parking Services, a Minnesota-based company that develops smart meter technology.

“[It’s] not so much to generate revenue as it is to create space availability and space turnover, so that there’s adequate and available supply of on-site parking,” Cassidy said.

Creating space?

Compliance could be low at first as drivers get acclimated to a new system of enforcement. But compliance should increase as regular visitors learn the ropes, according to parking officials.

Nonetheless, business owners in Palisades Park remain wary of the new meters.

Neme Hamperl, a manager of Palisades Park Bakery on Broad Avenue, said he was lucky the business has its own parking lot and turnover in the lot is high since because patrons spend at most 15 minutes inside.

Local officials insist the meters will not deter visitors but will increase parking turnover.

Without the parking lot, Hamperl said, the meters would create problems for himself, other bakery workers and customers.

In New Brunswick — a city of 55,000 residents — officials have tried a variety of methods to provide sufficient parking space.

The city has nine decks and its parking meters employ the flashing red expiration lights, accept credit cards and allow for patrons to pay via an app on their phones.

Mitch Karon, executive director of the New Brunswick Parking Authority, said many patrons who would visit the city during the weekends simply factor parking into the cost of their night out, along with food and drink.

“When people come downtown to eat dinner Saturday nights, a few of our decks fill up,” Karon said, suggesting that the cost of parking has not deterred visitors.

Lorenzo and Cassidy both suggested that meters would actually increase visitation because they would create a higher turnover of drivers, making it easier to find a parking spot.

“We don’t want to discourage shoppers and business owners. What we want to do is turn over these spots,” Lorenzo said. The current system – where drivers can spend hours at a meter – is more likely to keep patrons away.

Lorenzo acknowledged that some kinks would have to be worked out, such as how strictly the borough enforces parking laws during certain hours of the evening where the majority of people parking are there to visit restaurants for between 30 to 70 minutes.

“Maybe our [enforcement] times need to be changed at that period of time, maybe we want to relax the time later in the evening to better serve the restaurants,” Lorenzo said. “You don’t want to be sitting at the table and say ‘oh I don’t want to run out [of meter time]’ and put a quarter in the meter. We don’t want to discourage shoppers and business owners. What we want to do is turn over these spots.”

Daniel J. Munoz
Daniel Munoz covers politics and state government for NJBIZ. You can contact him at dmunoz@njbiz.com.

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