Drivers might have observed the recent addition of “smart parking meters” overseeing more than 100 spots in downtown Dubuque. The new technology is part of a three-month pilot program that the city launched last month.
There are positives for local residents and visitors using the meters. Drivers won’t need to carry change, for one thing, because the meters have the option of payment by credit or debit cards. For downtown business owners concerned about vehicles taking up spaces for long stretches of time, the smart meters will give city employees additional tools for enforcement to ensure the turnover of spots.
The city notes that deployment of the meters during this trial period isn’t costing the city anything, that the city will get all the meter fees collected and that the trial will provide valuable data for evaluating wider use of the platform.
But if — or perhaps when — the city decides to contract with a smart-meter vendor, there likely will be a significant upfront cost. When Galena, Ill., recently looked into using smart meter kiosks to manage parking issues there, estimates came back at nearly $9,000 per kiosk, with 28 kiosks needed for Galena’s downtown.
In many (all?) cities, the kiosk companies receive a cut of the money the meters take in. It stands to reason, then, that if cities find it makes financial sense to spend hundreds of thousands on the meters and can afford to give a cut of revenue to the meter company, then cities must anticipate a spike in revenue from the new platform.
Where will the additional money come from? Well, certainly it will come, in part, from scofflaws who now work the system and sometimes get away with parking without paying. That won’t happen nearly as often with smart meters. And if catching those folks who are breaking the law brings in more money, so be it, some might say. After all, they’re breaking the law.
But money also will come from the well-intentioned drivers who run a few minutes later than expected. Likewise, gone will be the days of happening upon a meter with time left on it. Instead, if a patron leaves before a meter is expired and a new vehicle arrives, the city gets to double dip on that period of time.
It all feels reminiscent of the trend toward speeding and red light cameras a few years back, when many cities issued tickets to violators caught on camera. The cameras were installed under the guise of making roads safer. But they also created lucrative revenue streams for communities and the camera companies. Citizens called foul and filed lawsuits, and ultimately, the Iowa Department of Transportation pulled back, limiting the cameras’ use to high-risk locations.
In San Francisco, notorious for parking problems, smart-meter kiosks are out in full force. Last month, that city’s mayor proposed extending metered parking hours to 10 p.m. and eliminating free parking on Sundays. In addition, San Francisco is considering increasing the cost of those meters during peak hours.
All of this leads to the conclusion that smart meters will require significant scrutiny and discussion beyond the trial period. Convenience for drivers and assistance for small-business owners are valid reasons for adding smart technology. But the cost at which those positives are achieved and the unintended consequences call for close examination.