COLUMBIA — Fishing for change in your pocket to feed a downtown meter will no longer be necessary if a pilot program recommended by the Downtown Parking Task Force proves successful.
A city staff report presented to the Columbia City Council on Monday night requested a 90-day trial for two new systems to pay for parking downtown with credit cards or cellphones. The report indicated a preference to begin the trial as early as February.
In a letter to Mayor Bob McDavid on Dec. 1, Downtown Parking Task Force Chairman Skip Walther recommended testing a single and multispace system on Ninth Street.
A single-space system would be handled by San Diego-based IPS Group Inc. This system would include one meter head for each space, similar to the current structure. During the trial, the single-space system would be in place on Ninth Street between Cherry and Locust streets.
A multispace system, which would feature one pay station in the middle of each block with individually numbered spaces lining the street, would be implemented by Digital Payment Technologies, based in Canada. The multispace system would be on Ninth Street between Broadway and Cherry Street.
Digital Payment Technologies machines are currently used in three of the city’s parking garages, according to the staff report.
Each system would allow payment by credit card, in addition to the EZ Park cards and the coin option already available in downtown meters. The systems also include the option for payment by cellphone and would run on a secure wireless network.
Walther said the credit card option would likely be desirable for the public and increase revenue. “If we go to this new technology, it’s going to be much more convenient for people who are coming downtown,” he said.
Walther also said the credit card option would increase the number of people using the meters.
“Everyone has a credit card; it’s so much easier to pay,” Walther said.
Walther said the equipment for the pilot program would be on loan from each company, but the city might have to pay installation and labor costs.
IPS Group is the only company in the country with the ability to retrofit coin-operated meters with a head that accepts credit cards, Marketing Manager Lisa Bahr said.
Bahr said one of the biggest advantages of a single-space system is convenience.
"If you search online and look at photos of people using multispace machines, you always see confusion," Bahr said. "They're different in every city."
Bahr did not have specific contract details but said the cost of each meter is about $500. Credit card transaction fees also vary by contract, but Bahr said IPS Group typically charges 13 cents for each secure credit card payment.
Bahr also noted that all of IPS Group's meters are solar-powered, saving the city money on battery disposal fees in addition to being more environmentally friendly.
Digital Payment Technologies manufactures a second-generation version of the machines in city garages that would be used for the 90-day trial, according to task force recommendations.
Alan Menezes, vice president of product management and marketing for Digital Payment Technologies, said one of the advantages of a multi, pay-by-space system was the elimination of “piggybacking.”
Piggybacking occurs when someone drives up to a single-space meter that still has time left and doesn’t feed the meter. A pay-by-space system with one machine discourages this practice because remaining time isn't publicly displayed.
“Enforcement officers know when a space has been paid for, but the parker does not know which are paid for and which are not,” Menezes said.
Menezes said his company charges the city a flat rate per month for credit card fees and data, including how much cash is spent at a particular machine and how many parkers are using it.
“All that’s provided on our back-end system,” Menezes said.
The cost of the machines depends on their configuration. Menezes said he hadn’t spoken with the city about specifics but offered an estimate of between $8,000 and $10,000 for each midblock machine, should the city decide on that option.
The Ninth Street location was selected for the pilot program because of its high volume of traffic, Walther said.
“It’s the busiest street downtown next to Broadway,” Walther said.
The task force and Parking Utility plan to gather feedback from the public through the program before making a decision about altering downtown meters, and details about the pilot program have not been finalized.
At the council meeting Monday night, Public Works Director John Glascock said the department was “still evaluating” the potential costs of the recommendation, including those associated with credit card payments.