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A Pay-and-Display Payoff in Portland

Theresa Hagerty

The city of Portland, OR, recently made a smooth transition to multiple-space SmartMeters that enabled it to quickly increase parking revenues by 25 percent to 30 percent. Revenues are expected to continue to rise.
Local dealer/installer Pacific Cascade received the shipment of the European-made meters, and handled all warehousing, assembly, programming and delivery. Nearly 900 meters have been installed since May 2002, with another 600 slated.
"The installation is going very well at this point. It's like a fine-tuned process," says Mike Hershberger, service manager of DGM Systems, the service subsidiary of Pacific Cascade. "We're delivering 10 meters a day, three days a week.
"We are very excited to be working on this transformation with the city of Portland. It is groundbreaking, because not a lot of cities have these meters yet, and it's a terrific learning opportunity for us," says Mark Curtis, president of Pacific Cascade. "This is the cutting edge of parking technology, and we anticipate that many municipalities will want to go this route when they understand all of the advantages."
The meter is the Stelio model, manufactured by Schlumberger (now Parkeon), but it has been marketed to Portland citizens as the SmartMeter, and it is living up to that name. Armed with the latest technology, including the ability to accept credit cards and smart cards, the sleek European-styled meter generates sticker receipts that are placed in automobile windows. Portland allows the stickers to travel with the car to other parking spots until the time is expired. The new meters have not only boosted revenues but also solved a myriad of other problems for Portland's parking officials.
"When parking rates increased, our old meters kept jamming because they couldn't handle the volume of coins," says Keith Ehrensing, program coordinator for Portland's parking operations department. "And we couldn't repair them because there were no spare parts -- the manufacturer had stopped making the meter mechanism. Now, with the new meters, we've seen a 95 percent reduction in jams, because they have larger vaults to hold more money. Fewer problems mean more operating hours and higher revenues."
Better coin recognition has also saved money for the city. "The coin recognition is three to ten times better with these new meters, because they use technology similar to vending machines. A meter will return the coin if it doesn't recognize it," Ehrensing explains. "We used to have to dry the coins and do a lot of handling and sorting to pull out foreign money, arcade tokens, washers, paper clips and the like. But the money comes from these [new] meters clean and dry -- there's no junk."
Electronic payments have also significantly helped reduce jamming problems and money handling. Approximately 45 percent of payments are now made by credit card. A smaller portion is covered by prepaid electronic smart cards, similar to the gift cards now offered by many retailers. The city hopes that smart card payments eventually climb to 25 percent of the total.
"We believe people want to pay," says Ehrensing, "and we want to make it as easy, convenient and painless as possible for them to do that. The credit card and smart card options are just more ways to improve customer service." He notes that citizens often didn't carry enough quarters to properly fill the old coin-operated meters.
Equipped with wireless, two-way communication, the meters provide what Ehrensing calls "proactive preventive maintenance," sending electronic messages when the paper or batteries are low. It's not often, though, that the batteries need to be replaced, because each meter features a solar panel that captures ambient light to recharge the 12-volt battery. "Each of the 7,100 old meters consumed one 9-volt battery a year. With help from the solar panel, the new batteries last three to five years. That greatly reduces costs, labor and disposal issues," Ehrensing says.
Beyond the technological and revenue benefits, the multiple-space meters also offer an aesthetic advantage. Ehrensing describes how rows of the old-style meters created a "picket fence" that created a physical and visual sidewalk barrier. "Now we reclaim two and one-half feet of sidewalk width," he explains. "It opens up more room for wheelchair access and outdoor cafE dining, and it's just more visually appealing."
Portland went through an extensive evaluation in selecting the high-tech SmartMeters, and actively engaged the maintenance and enforcement staff in the process. The installation presented a bit of a challenge, because it was breaking new ground.
"This has been an exciting project to work on because it's the biggest on-street, citywide installation in the United States," says Hershberger of DGM Systems. "There was no one else to use as an example. We figured it out along the way," he says. "We consulted extensively with the manufacturer and addressed challenges as they arose. There were surprising lessons along the way, Hershberger recalls, such as how many hours it takes simply to unpack multiple cargo containers full of meters, and how much recycling is involved.
The dealership had an established relationship with the city of Portland, having long provided a variety of parking products and solutions. That experience helped as they worked to meet the requirements of a number of different city departments. "It can be challenging to work with different groups, but Portland did a great job of planning," says Hershberger. "They let us know a month in advance exactly where we need to deliver the meters. It has gone smoothly."
Ehrensing is as equally complimentary of Pacific Cascade. "Using Pacific Cascade as the local vendor has been a significant benefit to our SmartMeter installation project," he says. "Their training, dedication and expertise, plus a willingness to go the extra mile to meet our needs, have complemented city efforts to provide high-quality customer service to the citizens of Portland."

Article Abstract from January, 2004




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