Two years in, Salt Lake City is still trying to get a handle on its new parking system.
Sold as a leap forward in 2011, the electronic system with its blue stations has faced technical problems and angered many city visitors. What’s more, parking fees and fines have produced millions of dollars less than the city expected despite an increase in rates. The ease of credit-card payments apparently has been offset by machines that sometimes won’t take the cards or screens that are too dark or even a spate of "heat stroke" that killed the machines in mid-summer last year.
Even the advantages for city parking enforcers — real-time reporting that was supposed to automate the jobs of those who write parking tickets — has been less than promised because the data processes too slowly. That was enough that the city of Juneau, Alaska, canceled its contract with Aparc, the provider of Salt Lake City’s $4.5 million system. (Salt Lake City has withheld the last 20 percent of that sum to get Aparc to solve the problems.)
Some of this can be chalked up to the price of transition. The old parking meters went virtually unchanged for half a century, so an adjustment period is understandable.
But the city’s recent history with managing parking, and revenue from parking, is harder to understand. The city blames $900,000 of its missed revenue projection not on the new meters but on reduced staffing in the collections department. But if that’s the case, why would the city let hundreds of thousands of dollars go uncollected because they didn’t hire more collectors at a fraction of that cost?
The city now estimates it will average $5.6 million in uncollected parking fines for the fiscal year ending in June, the largest amount in at least five years. Most any business is more diligent about making sure accounts receivable do not grow by more than 10 percent in two years, as the city’s have.
Salt Lake isn’t Juneau, and here’s betting those blue boxes aren’t going anywhere. The city accurately understands the meters’ role, which is to provide a convenient, short-term option for downtown visitors. The city bought them with support of the City Council, the Downtown Alliance and the Salt Lake Chamber, and there are plenty of people who say they like the new system. (Hint: if you have a smart phone and want to park downtown, download the app. Then you can park and pay without even finding the little blue towers and fumbling with their dark, little screens.)
It isn’t just the machines that have been glitchy. It’s also the wheels of city government, whether it’s fine collection, parking enforcement, vendor-contract enforcement or even just accurate budget projection. This isn’t just about change. It’s about managing change, and the city hasn’t done that well in this case.
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