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Parking is a game we play but never win

"The city of St. Petersburg," Phil Oropesa began, "has been playing this game since back in 1958."

To prove his point, Oropesa, who is the city's parking manager, dumped a foot-high stack of reports and studies on the table.

Sure enough, they dated back to the 1950s and early 1960s. They generally said one of two things:

(1) St. Petersburg needs more parking meters.

(2) St. Petersburg needs fewer parking meters.

Life is a cycle. At one point, St. Petersburg had 5,000 parking meters on the streets. But the city's downtown merchants in the 1960s demanded free parking to compete with that new threat, the shopping mall.

Times change. Today's merchants want turnover in downtown parking. Most of them are in favor of time limits or some sort of metered parking. There is constant pressure on the city.

The City Council, bless its collective heart, has tried. To be more accurate, the council has tried one cockamamie scheme after another. The worst of these was spending $1.5-million in 1998 for French-made, solar-powered meters that nobody understood.

The current situation boils down to: free street parking with a two-hour limit, enforced Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., except around Tropicana Field, where the limit is enforced up to 11 p.m.

This two-hour time limit is enforced by good, old-fashioned chalk marks on tires, put there by the city's six (soon to be eight) parking enforcers.

Of course, there are those who try to get around this.

Some people will go out and roll their cars back and forth, hoping to erase or cover up the chalk mark. Others say, why fool around, and just wipe the mark off (illegally, of course).

Then there's the strategy of moving one's car to another space. However, Oropesa said, you'd better be sure to move it to another block, because the two-hour limit applies to the entire block you're in, not just the space you're in.

It's a big game of downtown workers versus downtown merchants. People who work downtown would like to park their cars and forget about them. People who own businesses downtown want to make sure that doesn't happen.

Over the next few months, Oropesa's troops will switch from old-fashioned chalk to hand-held computers, in which they will enter each license plate on each block. What's more, the city is re-erecting some of the French parking pay stations, in a simpler format.

At first blush, the new system sounded wacky to me. I asked Oropesa about a scenario that seemed the least fair. What if somebody parks for five minutes to grab a cup of coffee, drives away, comes back two hours later and parks in the same block? Could they be ticketed?

That won't happen, he answered. The attendants are covering each block every 15 minutes to half-hour. Once you leave, your tag is deleted.

I asked: Why should a driver be punished for moving his or her car into a new parking space on the same block? That's just the way the ordinance is written, he answered. Some cities do it by the space. Some do it by the block. Some are even harsher, and give you only one visit per block per day before assuming you are a violator.

The French-made pay stations are being re-erected downtown as part of a deal with the manufacturers. We sent half of the original 225 back, and agreed to use the rest. The company is paying the cost of re-fitting them.

Oropesa, who came here from Reading, Pa., in the spring of 1999, said if it were up to him he would "buy a couple thousand single-space meters." But a deal is a deal, so he is making the best of the pay stations. All in all, his explanations at least sounded more rational than anything coming out of City Hall on this topic in years.