Reviews are mixed on downtown Tampa's solar parking meters

The new solar-powered pay stations accept credit cards as well as coins.

LUIS SANTANA | Times

The new solar-powered pay stations accept credit cards as well as coins.

DOWNTOWN — As an account manager for a document services company downtown, Tom Corsi spends $1,600 to $2,000 a year feeding parking meters.

He admits he has gotten hundreds of parking tickets over several years. His personal best in one day: four.

"It cost me to go to work that day,'' he said with a huff.

Like a lot of people who frequent downtown, he has mixed reviews of the new solar parking meters. He likes the option of paying with a credit card and getting a receipt, but he hates not being able to park in a spot that has time remaining.

"It's gouging by the city,'' he said.

The city installed the pay-by-the-space system in January to replace 1,000 coin-operated meters, some of which dated to the 1980s and required constant maintenance. To discourage drivers from chancing a ticket because they don't have spare change, pay stations accept credit cards as well as coins.

So far, the system is working as intended. Meter revenue in March and April rose 12 percent over the same period last year, said Jim Corbett, the city's parking division manager. So many people use credit cards that employees no longer have to empty meters daily.

But it's far from perfect.

Some drivers get tickets even though they paid. A few of the solar-powered stations go black because of inadequate sunlight.

Bill Nelligar, co-owner of the Metro restaurant on Franklin Street, said people often see the space number signs and assume they are reserved.

"I think the instructions are poor. They don't clearly give you directions,'' he said, noting the nearest pay station to his restaurant is around the corner. "We tell people all the time how to do it.''

The 146 pay stations guide users through a series of prompts, starting with the parking space number. You get a receipt at the end, but the machine doesn't say whether you need to put it on your dash. (You don't.)

Some motorists complain about having to pay a minimum of an hour, if you pay by credit card. And if you leave before your time expires, the next person doesn't get to piggyback on the time left.

"You start over, which doesn't seem fair,'' Corsi said. "I understand it's all about revenue, but still.''

The city gave motorists a several-week grace period to get accustomed to the new system before officers issued real tickets. Three months into it, the city is still working through some of the glitches.

Erroneous ticketing can happen when meter officers gather pay station reports showing which spaces have not paid. If an officer tries to cover too many spaces in one report, by the time he walks to some spots, a driver could have paid for that space.

The city is working with the vendor to fix the problem and hopes to get handheld devices that work in real time, Corbett said. In the interim, officers are tracking fewer spaces at a time. Drivers can dispute the ticket by showing their receipt.

As for the solar problems, the city has stocked up on batteries for pay stations with limited light and trimmed back a few trees that blocked the sun. Also, the summer solstice should bring more direct sun.

Technical glitches aside, city officials are pleased with the results. Meter technicians have been reassigned to other city projects. Drivers don't have to carry a roll of quarters. If all goes as planned, the $1.16 million investment should pay for itself in three years.

"We're still getting some people who are confused,'' Corbett said, "but once you show them how, they say, 'Wow, it's that simple.' ''

Reviews are mixed on downtown Tampa's solar parking meters 05/26/11 [Last modified: Thursday, May 26, 2011 5:30am]

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