Parking meter replacement should reduce downtown Athens headaches

When they were installed several years ago, the “pay-and-display” multiple-space parking meters on Broad and Clayton streets in downtown Athens were state of the art in parking meter technology. Unfortunately, they’ve turned out to be a pain in the asphalt — frustrating residents, visitors, and in turn, downtown merchants.

That’s why Athens-Clarke County’s mayor and commission are working toward the removal of the last of those meters, on East Clayton Street, to replace them with single-space meters, whose technology has caught up with multi-space pay-and-display metering. The multi-space meters on Broad Street were replaced with single-space meters two years ago.

Commissioners will vote on the issue at their Aug. 2 voting meeting. The proposed removal of the multi-space meters and their replacement with single-space meters is on the “consent agenda” for that meeting, as part of a list of items slated to get affirmative votes.

Pay-and-display metering incorporates a kiosk-style meter serving several spaces. The downtown Athens kiosks accept change, dollar bills and Visa or MasterCard credit cards, eliminating the need for carrying the change needed to use older-style single-space meters that accepted only coins.

After paying at the kiosks, motorists get a receipt that records the time they parked and the amount of time they purchased. That receipt must then be placed on the car’s dashboard so parking personnel can check for any meter violations.

The unwieldy process — getting out of the vehicle, finding a pay-and-display kiosk, getting a receipt and returning to the vehicle to display the receipt — has, in the words of Athens-Clarke County Mayor Nancy Denson, “been a thorn in our side.”

The mayor herself was cited for a pay-and-display meter violation after she placed a receipt on her dashboard in such a way that Downtown Athens Parking System personnel couldn’t determine whether her time had expired.
Another issue, Denson said, is that the meter kiosks can be hard to spot, as they sit amid benches, trees and other elements of the downtown streetscape.

The new single-space meters should boost parking revenue, according to the mayor, because “people understand what they’re looking at.”

Since the meter kiosks were installed six years ago, the technology associated with single-space meters has improved to the point that they, too, can now accept Visa and MasterCard payments, along with quarters and dollar coins. Those meters are now becoming the standard for parking in downtown Athens — all of the meters installed for the newly created parking spaces on Dougherty Street, and for some previously unmetered spaces in the eastern edge of downtown, are digital single-space meters.

Pam Thompson, executive director of the Athens Downtown Development Authority, which manages downtown parking, says the ADDA is pleased to see the last of the kiosks headed for removal.

“Some people aren’t familiar with them,” she said, and as a result, the ADDA has been fielding a steady stream of complaints. Additionally, a number of downtown merchants have lodged complaints, Thompson said. Most often, she explained, those complaints come from merchants whose businesses are closest to the kiosks, as they deal frequently with downtown visitors who need help in operating the meters, or who complain that the meters are broken.
Maintenance also has been an issue with the pay-and-display meters, Thompson said, and when one of the meters goes out of commission, it affects revenue from a number of spaces. Motorists can go to any downtown pay-and-display kiosk to pay for parking, but parking personnel have been lenient on apparent violations when kiosks have been out of commission, Thompson said.

Echoing the mayor, Thompson said she expects to see an increase in what she called “legitimate” parking revenue — money collected through parking meters rather than through fines — as the new single-space meters are installed. While it’s difficult to forecast exactly what will happen on a specific section of a given street, Thompson said, the replacement of the pay-and-display meters with single-space meters could bring as much as a 20 percent increase in legitimate parking revenue from those parking spaces.

According to a report presented Tuesday to the commission by county government management, replacement of the kiosks with 127 single-space meters is projected to cost $101,250, with funds slated to come from local sales tax revenue dedicated to a downtown infrastructure improvement project. That overall project has been delayed as the county government has worked to attract bids within the project budget, so the installation of the parking meters ahead of the rest of that project will mean that, at some point, the single-space meters will have to be taken up and reinstalled as the wider infrastructure project gets under way.

As a result, county management is recommending that $40,000 of an anticipated increase in downtown parking revenue for this fiscal year be used to install the meters, with sales tax dollars being used to take them up and reinstall them whenever the complete downtown infrastructure improvement project begins.

According to Thompson, the initial installation of the new single-space meters along East Clayton Street should come in December.

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