Long Beach is talking about change — parking meter change, that is.

If a proposal from City Manager Pat West’s office is approved by the City Council as it stands now, automobile drivers will soon be parking at smart meters that accept credit cards, but they’ll need to pay an extra 50¢ per hour. The change could impact Belmont Shore and downtown street meters. 

Deputy City Manager Tom Modica has been collecting public comments about the proposal to standardize the city’s parking with smart meters. 

So What’s A Smart Meter?

Parking meters were first invented and installed in 1935 in Oklahoma City, making their Long Beach debut soon after in 1936 — at that time, the price was one nickel per hour.

According to city officials, Belmont Shore’s meters have been in place since the early 1990s and were upgraded from mechanical to electronic in 2001. But parking technology has changed greatly in the past decade, with many cities providing drivers with the option to pay by credit card or even remotely with a cell phone app.

The smart meters have many different capabilities, and it is up to individual cities to determine which features they will put into service.

Today’s new single space “smart” meters, which still accept cash for the traditionalists, provide drivers with the convenience of being able to pay without storing coins in the ashtray. Credit cards, cell phone applications or even pre-paid smart cards can be used.

Amir Sedadi, the vice president of intelligent transportation systems with IPS, said his company invented single space credit card readers, the first of which were installed in 2007. Now selling the fifth generation of that product, San Diego-based IPS has brought smart meters to upwards of 130 cities, including Los Angeles, Huntington Beach, San Francisco and others.

“It’s about convenience,” Sedadi explained. “Everyone loves this technology. It’s a state-of-the-art smart system for a city that is going towards smart, innovating programs.”

If the smart meters are installed, Sedadi said seeing customers run in and out of stores to feed their meters could be a thing of the past.

One of the selling points for cities is that the smart meters have a backlit screen that is 160 pixels by 160 pixels (or approximately 2-1/4 inches by 2-1/4 inches, Sedadi said. The screen can be used to educate drivers about how to use the meters, but it also can be used to advertise special events or even promote free parking on certain days or let the community know about street closures or other pertinent information.

“These screens are sophisticated and easy to use, and programming in a new message can be done remotely,” he said. “We can use graphics, such as logos, as well as put out public messages or even just time limits and rates.”

To power that screen, the smart meters use solar energy and a rechargeable battery, with an additional back up battery inside as a failsafe. If the battery runs low, or if the meter has any other malfunction (such as a coin jam), a report is sent immediately to city officials so that the problem can be corrected faster than with traditional meters.

Sedadi also explained that smart meters can be operated with an in-ground sensor.

The sensor detects the presence of a vehicle in the space, collecting data about the frequency of the space’s use and providing real time data that can be used to alert drivers to open spaces. Mobile phone applications, and even some car navigation systems, can be synched to the meter system to show available spaces available.

“Data from these sensors is helpful with policy decisions; maybe the city wants to look at changing the time limit on a space or the hours that the space requires paid parking,” Sedadi said. “San Francisco has used the data to create demand-based pricing during peak periods, and that is up to the individual city to make that kind of decision.”

The sensor also includes an option where the meters can prevent cars from parking in one spot beyond set time limits — for instance, most meters in Belmont Shore have a two-hour time limit, so if the city decided to enforce that time limit, drivers wouldn’t be able to feed the meter more money without moving their car to a different spot after hitting the two-hour time limit.

Also, piggybacking on a previously paid meter could be eliminated with the smart meters, if the city decides to use that feature. In that case, if a driver left a space with time still on the meter, that time could be wiped clean before the next car moved into that space.

Why Does This Cost More?

According to the proposal, “While providing a number of benefits, these meters come with additional cost and operational considerations. A modest rate increase will be needed to ensure that the city will continue to achieve long-term net revenue neutrality" if the new smart meters are approved as proposed.

Despite a projected revenue increase of about 22% with the installation of the smart meters with in-ground sensors, due to people tending to max out the time limit with their credit card, eliminating piggybacking and other factors, that revenue isn’t enough to offset increased costs, Modica explained.

There’s a nearly three-fold increase in operating costs for the city when it comes to the smart meters. Roughly, city officials expect current operating costs of $158 per meter to be closer to $446 per meter, annually.

The installation of the new smart meters and sensors is estimated to cost about $1 million citywide, replacing 1,620 meters.

Those higher costs are due, in large part, to the transaction fees that will accrue when people use their credit cards at the machines. However, the city projects that no additional staffing will be required to operate the machines and they do not anticipate that parking citations will increase or decrease due to smart meters.

Modica said the projected cost is only an estimate, but the costs go higher if more people than expected use credit cards rather than coins because that results in more transaction fees than anticipated. He said the city needs to be conservative in its estimates.

The report also stated that, even with the rate increase, Long Beach’s parking meter rates would be at or below average in comparison to other beach cities. Currently, parking meter rates in Belmont Shore are 50¢ per hour on the street and 25¢ per hour in the lots off of Second Street; downtown area rates are 50¢ per hour or $1 per hour in the downtown core area or $2 per hour at The Pike.

What Are People Saying?

Before the proposal is brought before the City Council for approval in late September or early October, Modica said he is seeking public input.

During the Belmont Shore Parking Commission meeting last week, Chair Bill Lorbeer said that the smart meter technology is the way to go, but he and other commissioners are not so sure that a 50¢ rate increase is the city’s only option for offsetting the cost of the meters. The commission did not make an official recommendation, but plans to discuss the meters more at next month’s meeting and possibly at an unscheduled special meeting.

“We were ready to pull the trigger on smart meters a year ago because we believe this is the way of the future,” Lorbeer said. “… We also want to maintain our low rates down here, and I know many of us are going to be frustrated by this.”

Commissioner Kurt Schneiter said he would like to see the city explore some other options, including a possible convenience fee for those who want to use their credit card at the machine instead of coins.

Commissioners also want to look into other possibilities, including possibly dipping into their reserve fund before setting the rate increase, extending the hours at the meters or setting a minimum limit on credit card charges.

Lorbeer emphasized: “We have to be super careful to make sure that we don’t create an expense that causes us to have a shortfall in revenue. But Belmont Shore is different than other areas, and we have some options.”

At the Belmont Shore Business Association meeting, the debate was heated amongst business owners. Most seem to support the installation of smart meters, but many were concerned about the rate increase or even certain potential features on the meters (such as stopping customers from feeding more money into the meter after hitting the two-hour time limit). The BSBA did not take any official stance for or against the installation of the new smart meters or the rate increase.

How Do I Weigh In?

City officials will be attending various public meetings in Belmont Shore and downtown regarding the proposal, with dates to be announced. In the meantime, those who have comments or questions about the smart meters should send an email to parkingmeterstudy@longbeach.gov. There's also an online survey available here.

Ashleigh Ruhl can be reached at aruhl@gazettes.com.

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