May 23, 2018
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Meter madness hits Portland — $175,000 and rising

By Chris Busby

Maybe I’m just getting old — I went from 40 to “over 40” last February — but I hate Portland’s newfangled parking meters. Like so many other modern technological wonders (cellphones, email), the new meters were pitched to the public on the promise of convenience, but in practice they’re a pain in the ass.

In the midst of the most calamitous economic downturn since the Great Depression, during which the city has fired teachers and raised taxes, the Portland City Council decided to spend $175,000 on 18 solar-powered parking meter kiosks. The Great Recession was exacerbated by the fact too many Americans were in debt and living on credit. The new meters’ biggest selling point: they accept credit and debit cards.

That $175,000 is just a down payment. Unlike the perfectly workable coin-op meters, the new kiosks will suck up public money for the rest of their cursed existence.

The kiosks use wireless technology to transmit your credit or bank card information, and that service ain’t free. According to Portland parking director John Peverada, the city now has to pay $45 per meter, every month, to cover the cost of that wireless service. That’s almost 10 grand a year for the 18 kiosks in this pilot program.

If the city decides to buy enough kiosks to cover the rest of its metered spaces, it will need about 133 more of these suckers (and about $1.3 million to purchase, install and maintain them). That would bring the kiosks’ annual wireless bill to over $81,500. And if you think that $45 monthly charge is going anywhere but up, you shouldn’t be allowed to operate a motor vehicle.

As with any credit or debit card transaction, the company that processes the payment takes a cut (about 10 percent, on average), so the city loses money there, too. The processing fee is the reason there’s a $1 minimum to use a credit or debit card at the kiosk.

This significantly undercuts the convenience argument. So many downtown errands involve running in and out of a shop. If you only need, say, six minutes of meter time, you feed the thing a dime and off you go. If you don’t have a dime (and no brothers around can spare one), you can use your card, but you’ll have to spend 10 times as much money for the convenience.

With the old meters, if you put in more change than you needed to do your business, usually a lucky stranger would soon pull into your spot and discover, to their delight, that some or all of the parking time they need is already paid for. No such delight awaits motorists using the new kiosks. Now we’re all on our own. You can still pay too much for metered parking (especially if you use a card), but your fellow citizens will reap no reward as a result.

The time-stamped receipt you get from the kiosk can be used at any metered parking space in the city, even coin-op ones, so if you have more errands to run, your extra meter time may not go to waste. But most local motorists don’t know this and tourists are totally in the dark. This benefit is not mentioned on the kiosk or the receipt. Good thing you read the BDN.

There’s one kiosk for about 10 parking spaces. Peverada said the machines are generally within 100 feet of the farthest space, so drivers have to do more walking. An extra 95 feet of foot travel is no big deal, right?

But if you get a spot on the end, it’s an extra 190 feet round trip (walk to meter, use system, walk back to car and place receipt on dashboard). During a driving rainstorm or, say, winter, the convenience of this arrangement becomes a hell of a lot less apparent.

In the heat of summer, it’s now foolish to leave your car windows open more than a crack downtown, even if you don’t keep anything valuable in your vehicle. The wind could blow the receipt off your dashboard or a rascal could reach in and swipe it for themselves.

Portland’s new meters are more expensive, less convenient, and subtly erode our communal feelings of trust and goodwill. The city does not expect to collect more revenue from the new meters, and will likely lose money given the extra expenses. Let’s ground this pilot program before it takes off.

Chris Busby is editor and publisher of The Bollard, a monthly magazine about Portland. His column appears here weekly.

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