COLUMBIA — Two silver boxes on both sides of Ninth Street have been drawing quizzical looks from passers-by since their installation Thursday.
Both boxes are situated on the sidewalk, one in each of the two blocks between Broadway and Cherry streets. Each machine has solar panels on the top, dark screens and no words to indicate what they are.
One man called out, "That a pay phone?"
But the silver boxes are multi-space parking meters, and they are part of an experiment in new parking technologies unfolding on Ninth Street.
Digital Payment Technologies, based in Canada, installed the multi-space machines, which will be on trial for 90 days for the pilot program proposed to the Columbia City Council by the Downtown Parking Task Force in December.
Before the trial begins, existing meter heads will be numbered. Motorists will then use the numbers of their parking spaces to pay in the middle of the block.
The new parking technology won't be ready for use until the second part of the pilot program is ready, though: A single-space system produced by San Diego-based IPS Group Inc.
"At this time, the city is waiting for the company to finish installing their equipment," said Jill Stedem, a spokeswoman for the city's Public Works Department.
Changes on the stretch of Ninth Street between Cherry and Locust streets will involve installing new heads on 35 to 40 meters.
Both systems accept credit cards, as well as the same options already available in downtown meters: Coinage and EZ Park cards. The new meters are also capable of smart phone payment.
Skip Walther, chairman of the Downtown Parking Task Force, anticipates recommending one or both systems to the council for purchase at the end of the 90-day trial.
"The question is, is it a good investment for the city to pay more for a high-tech system," Walther said. "Does the added convenience justify the increased cost of high-tech meters?"
The staff of the Downtown Community Improvement District will be surveying users throughout the trial and sending postcards to collect feedback.
"The primary goal is to increase the convenience of meter use, but at the same time we recognize that if it's more convenient to use meters and to pay, we might get more revenue," Walther said.
The city gets parking revenue through two sources: meter feeding and fines. Walther said the Downtown Parking Task Force hopes that by making it easier for the public to comply with the law, there will be more revenue from meters and less from tickets.
The multi-space meters also make it difficult to "piggyback," or use a meter's leftover time free of charge. The machine doesn't reveal when a spot has time remaining, so motorists have no option but to assume a spot has no remaining time. This will increase both city revenue and fairness, Walther said.
Both systems have the capability to be upgraded if the city installs them and new technology becomes available after the trial period.