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Balboa's 'Smart' Meters Put End to Feeding Frenzy

Transportation: Computerized units put an end to all- day parking--and time left over from the previous driver.


This time, parking hogs, there will be witnesses. And they will make sure you never again keep that parking spot for more than the two hours allotted by the meter. You also lose that last freebie still occasionally granted to the common motorist: 15 measly minutes left on the parking meter, courtesy of those who parked before you.

We all knew this day would come, if not like this: Some of the nation's first "smart" parking meters, being installed over the next two weeks on the heavily trafficked Balboa Peninsula in Newport Beach, will take most of the subterfuge--and hope--out of parallel parking.

The modified meters will look like they always did--cold, metallic and merciless--but they will sport an underground metal detector and a computer chip to determine when drivers enter and leave parking spots. Once a car is parked and the coins deposited, the meter will refuse any more feedings from, say, daylong beach goers who want to hang onto their spot for the day. The space must be vacated before more coins can go in.

And then, when the car does leave, comes the final, pitiless blow: No matter how much time was left on the meter, the computer chip will reset the meter to zero.

"Meter feeding is a really big issue . . . that needs to be fixed," said Dick Bartholet, a parking experts with the University of Nevada-Reno, speaking in all seriousness. "In a car culture, parking is very emotional. Especially when there is no parking."

That describes Balboa in summertime. Cars clog spots all day to the point where Newport Beach officials worry that beach goers are hurting business by taking up the spots in front of shops all day without buying anything.

"Right now, the only way to enforce parking turnover is using chalk on tires," said Rich Edmonston, Newport Beach traffic engineer. "The new meter makes the idea of feeding the meter [over the allotted time] obsolete."

The idea of a smarter meter isn't new. Other cities, including New York and Miami, long have fantasized about better meters to help parking officers be more efficient; many cities have devices--also popularly known as smart meters--that can take payment from a debit or credit card or a prepurchased pass. Some cities have tried meters that sense cars, but those meters didn't work properly.

Indeed, the Newport smart meters come at a time when parking meters have become a matter of serious public concern. In Silicon Valley last year, the city of Burlingame installed a wireless network to protect meters, enabling 50 parking meters to send alarms to police when tampering takes place. In 1997, a 63-year-old Cincinnati grandmother, also known as the "meter martyr," made national news when she was arrested, and later fined, for putting coins in meters as a policeman ticketed cars.

It was only a matter of time before someone invented a better meter.

Shortly after the Cincinnati incident, a Westport, Conn., start-up decided to be the one. Officials of InnovaPark say their goal is nothing less than an improved society. The more equal sharing of spots will make parking more democratic, company owner Kirby Andrews said. It will "liberate" parking spots.

About 20 of the meters were tested in Reno last year, but as a favor to InnovaPark, not as a municipal project. Andrews said he is talking to other coastal cities in Southern California, but would not divulge which ones.

His meter "will be more fair for everybody," Andrews said. "It is what's fair to the most people at any time. It'll be harder for the people who take advantage of meters, and easier for other people who are trying to find a parking spot."

The meters can be fooled--if a motorist pulls out of a spot, waits a moment and then pops back in. But in a parking purgatory like Balboa, chances are another car will be there waiting to slip in. On the other hand, it had better not slip in too fast; one remaining glitch in the machine is that if there isn't a pause between cars, the meter won't record the change and will refuse any coins.

Newport Pier Targeted to Test New Meters

Still, Newport Beach officials decided to give the meters a try.

"We need to move people," said Tod W. Ridgeway, a city councilman who voted for them. "Therein lies the problem." To start with, Newport Beach will allow 54 of its digital meters [the only kind the device works with] near Newport Pier and in parking lots near the ferries to be upgraded for a 90-day test period.

While it's working on the meters, the city also will raise some parking rates from 50 cents to $1 an hour.

Andrews is footing most of the cost, taking, in exchange, 75% of increased parking revenue, the bonus from all those motorists who aren't getting any free meter time.

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