More meter madness in Portland

The city of Portland has put a new twist on the old adage, “You have to spend money to make money.” When it comes to managing parking downtown, the city has committed to spend money to spend more money for many years to come.

Last year, the city installed 18 solar-powered parking meter kiosks to replace the mechanical meters that accept coins. The kiosks accept both coins and credit or debit cards (but not dollar bills). They’ve been pitched to the public as a way to make on-street parking more convenient, but as I wrote in a column about the kiosks last year, that’s a dubious argument.

The credit-card option does make it easier to spend money you may not have and pay interest for the favor. But beyond that, the kiosks are less convenient for motorists who, in most cases, must walk farther to pay for parking and, in all cases, must keep their vehicles locked and secured (windows rolled up even in muggy weather) lest the parking receipt required to be displayed on the dashboard gets blown off by a breeze or stolen, leaving the vehicle vulnerable to a ticket or a tow truck.

Last week, the city announced that it’s expanding last year’s pilot program by installing 36 more kiosks this month, and it’s offered another dubious argument to justify this expansion: the kiosks will pay for themselves.

That argument isn’t in the press release announcing the expansion, and neither is the cost of the 36 kiosks — $305,000, plus interest on that sum, since the cash-strapped city is borrowing money to do this. City spokesperson Nicole Clegg shared this whopper via e-mail when I inquired about the kiosks’ costs and revenues.

Unlike coin-op meters, the kiosks impose two significant, ongoing costs on the city budget. One is the wireless charge of $45 per month for each kiosk. (The units use wireless technology to transmit your credit or bank card information for payment.) The other is a usurious 10 percent fee the city pays to the card-processing company PowerPay every time a credit or debit card is used.

Parking in Portland costs $1 per hour, and payment is required during the nine hours between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m., Monday through Saturday. So in any given month, the wireless fee for the kiosk eats up five full days’ worth of revenue that a single coin-op meter could collect over the same period. To the extent that drivers opt to take advantage of the “convenience” of paying with a card, the city loses even more money — a dime off every dollar.

So how will these more expensive meters pay for themselves? “The idea is that if you make it easier for people to pay, they’re more inclined to pay,” Clegg said when we later spoke by phone.

Problem is, the only way kiosks make it easier to pay is by accepting credit and debit card payments, which, again, cost the city money to process. And there’s a $1 minimum to use a card, so if you need to run a 15-minute errand and don’t have change, you have to pay for a full hour for this “convenience.”

Removing the coin-op meters, which each cover one parking space, has also freed up some additional space for metered parking, Clegg said, because the old meters must be located a certain distance apart to accommodate the longest models of standard cars and trucks. In the absence of individual meters and spaces, a greater number of smaller cars can, in theory, fit along the same length of street.

In reality, of course, most people do not park as close to the bumpers of other vehicles as possible (nor would we want to encourage that), and in the absence of lines demarking spaces, odd-sized gaps are common. For example, when a 163-inch-long Volkswagen Beetle pulls out, that space is not available to a 263-inch-long Ford F-350, and two Bugs can’t fit in the space that truck leaves.

Lastly, Clegg noted that with the kiosks, every driver has to pay for their own parking. The practice of “piggybacking” — using a metered space that still has time left, courtesy of the previous driver — is eliminated. I think I speak for all of us when I say that absolutely sucks.

So, including interest payments, the city is spending about half a million bucks for 54 kiosks. Portland will pay nearly $30,000 every year (a decent starting salary for a teacher) just to cover the wireless bill for these machines.

By the time these “convenient” contraptions “pay for themselves,” we’ll either have to buy new ones or they’ll be obsolete — we’ll surely have jetpacks by then.

Chris Busby

About Chris Busby

Chris Busby is editor and publisher of The Bollard, a monthly magazine about Portland. He writes a weekly column for the BDN.