City parking system undergoes changes

May 2, 2009
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While the actual act of placing a vehicle between two yellow lines remains the same, the business of parking is changing.

As Parking Services Director Pam Ritsema recently revealed, the industry is moving fairly rapidly into a high-tech, automated mode and that move will change the way the city’s parking department will look and operate.

“We will have a somewhat different organization than we have now,” she said.

By early this summer, Ritsema said she wants all the downtown ramps the city owns to have fully automated pay stations, which will reduce the number of booth attendants the department needs. She said Parking Services has ordered eight of those stations at a cost of $240,000 and added that other undetermined infrastructure expenses will also be part of the transition. Part of that infrastructure expenditure includes video and audio connections at the stations in case a customer needs assistance.

“We will also have the ability to control the gates,” said Ritsema.

Even though the department will have fewer booth attendants on its payroll, Ritsema said not all the positions would be eliminated. Attendants would still be used for events that are expected to draw large crowds downtown and during some peak driving times. Seven attendants are on the full-time payroll now.

Barbara Singleton, of Parking Services, said the Government Center ramp below Calder Plaza will likely be the first to get an automated station.

“We’ve ordered the equipment but it hasn’t arrived yet,” said Ritsema. “Hopefully by June 30, we will have the equipment installed and working.”

Ritsema said the city of Lansing’s system has been fully automated for the better part of a year. The JW Marriott ramp on Campau Square and some of the properties owned and operated by the Ellis Parking Co. have automated pay stations.

“You’ll be very, very happy with them,” said Michael Ellis, president of Ellis Parking and city parking commissioner.

Ellis added that the installation of a machine gets easier each time one is installed, and customers get used to the stations relatively quickly.

Ritsema is also looking into another way customers could pay for meters. It would allow them to post a parking charge on a credit card through their cell phone. The method would eliminate a need to carry pocket change to feed a meter and would go a long way to prevent a customer from being ticketed for an expired meter. 

Companies could register their workers’ license plates on a company credit card and then remove parking as a reimbursed employee expense.

“There are some really cool possibilities for customers,” she said.

Ritsema said she has requested information on the payment method from seven firms and has heard from four. She expects to hear from the others in May. She said the cell phone payment method is popular in Europe, where it accounts for up to 15 percent of metered revenue in those nations. To use the system in ramps, the department would have to add cameras that would read a vehicle’s license plate at entry and exit points.

Ritsema said there are some details left to work out from the city’s perspective. How meter enforcement would be handled is one, because the timer in a meter wouldn’t be running so a checker wouldn’t know if one was expired or not. Another is to determine if, and how, the city would benefit from employing the cell-phone system.

Monthly parking at city-owned ramps and lots downtown was down in April from the same month last year by almost 300 parking cards, but stable from the fourth quarter of last year. Parking Services had 5,969 monthly cards in service at the beginning of April, the lowest number since April 2004.

Ritsema said revenue was down on a facility basis this year. But by having the Cherry Commerce ramp operating the past year and higher parking charges in place at other lots and ramps, the department’s overall revenue is on an even keel with last year’s income.

After all the revenue is counted and the bills are paid, Parking Services expects a net operating surplus of $400,000 for the fiscal year that ends June 30.

Parking commissioners are expected to decide whether to raise rates for the next fiscal year at their May meeting.

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