BRIDGEPORT – Downtown merchants have long-wanted modern parking meters that offered visitors the convenience of paying with credit or debit cards, not just rolls of quarters.
Critics say they wound up with dozens of overly aggressive RoboCops quick to levy $40 parking violations through the mail that eclipse what many more thriving Connecticut cities charge, threatening business.
“We’re not ready for this kind of downtown yet,” said Chef Pierre Desruisseaux of Metric Bar and Grill. “We have no business. We don’t attract people. And now we put meters to drive more away.”
Kelvin Ayala, owner of Moe’s Burger Joint, agreed.
“To go to this level of enforcement is overkill,” Ayala said. “Sales have gone down. People are afraid to park at the meters. They don’t understand them.”
Rowena White, Mayor Joe Ganim’s communications chief, said the city is open to adjusting the new parking enforcement system.
“We’re definitely listening to everything and paying attention,” she said.
For now, White said, City Hall is focused on trying to better publicize the new meters online and through social media and break habits related to the antiquated ones that were policed by humans.
White admitted she almost got a ticket when she pulled over to the curb quickly to answer her cell phone and wound up next to a meter. Installed this winter, the high-tech meters with their mounted cameras will automatically issue a violation if a payment is not made within a five minute grace period.
“It does blink to give you a warning. ‘You’re in the parking space. What are you going to do’?” White said. “It’s an education process.”
But the fact is the new meters were also launched without a promised convenience of a mobile phone application that will remind drivers when their time is about to expire, and allow them to purchase more minutes. That app is coming, the city said.
Sauda Baraka, a member of the school board, said she was mailed a $40 ticket after driving her granddaughter downtown to a new art supply store. She said New Haven’s meters have a phone application, and wondered why Bridgeport’s do not.
“It just seems like it’s a ‘gotcha’,” Baraka said.
White said the meters, in operation Monday through Saturday, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., with a two hour limit and extended times around the court houses – are intended to help businesses “so that people can come and go.”
“If I’m a restaurant owner and three people are parked in front of my store or restaurant for hours on end, how many customers am I losing?” White said. “There’s no ‘gotcha’ moment here. That’s not the intent at all.”
Fidele Hernaiz, an employee at Jimmy’s, witnessed a woman who pulled up in front of the clothing store, then sat in her car for an hour.
“Never got out and put a quarter in,” he said. “She probably doesn’t know she got a ticket, but she got one.”
Hernaiz and others said the city was not as tough enforcing the old change meters, so “people just assume they can park for free.”
“People (were) leaving cars in one space all day,” said developer Phil Kuchma. “That’s not good for the businesses. People here longer term should be parking in a garage or lot.”
“We started reminding our customers and giving them a quarter to put in the meter,” Hernaiz said of the new technology. “People just have to get used to it.”
Though meter proponents emphasize convenience and a better-organized downtown, there is also no question that this cash-strapped city is happy to rake in the meter money. For example, if a car pulls away before the meter time has expired, that extra time, though paid for, is canceled out and is not inherited by the next lucky driver. The opposite is the case with coin-operated meters.
And Bridgeport also has revenue-sharing agreements with the meter installer, MPS, which provided the equipment for free, and, to a lesser extent, with parking system manager LAZ.
Once the revenues – meter payments and $40 tickets – reach a guaranteed $97,000 per month, MPS, according to the agreement, will reap 100 percent of the meter profits for four months. After that the city receives 15 percent of the revenues and MPS 85 percent until that $97,000 in profits grows to $267,000 a month, or $3.2 million annually.
At that point Bridgeport will keep 80 percent of the revenues and MPS 20 percent.
Barbara Germak’s work requires the occasional visit to downtown Bridgeport from her job in Trumbull to meet with interns and volunteers. She was mailed a $40 ticket, she believes, because she sat in her car for a few minutes doing some paperwork beyond the half hour she bought on the meter. Germak said she had not realized she had over-stayed her time, and also had not known about the automatic enforcement.
“I must have been there 40 minutes as opposed to 30 minutes,” Germak said. “Innocent or guilty, the fact is it ($40) is a very steep fee for most people to pay today.” Germak wrote Ganim, warning him that “shoppers will not view Bridgeport as a friendly and happy place and continue to do business there.”
Hartford fines drivers $45 for not feeding the meter at all, and $25 if the meter expires. But New Haven, Danbury and Waterbury charge $20 for parking meter violations, and Norwalk and Stamford charge $25, according to their parking enforcement departments.
“That’s a problem,” said Ayala. “That ($40) fine needs to be reduced.”
The fine was set by the City Council. White argued it was “in line with the increase of the standard rate of living” and subject to a public hearing.
“No complaint or objection was raised,” she said. “So it was passed by the City Council.”
Recently two council members – Scott Burns and Kathryn Bukovsky – met with city officials and urged them to do more to inform the public about the new downtown parking meters and how to use them.
“There’s definitely concerns about people not knowing how it works,” said Burns.
Asked if the city should have at least held off on implementing the meters until the mobile phone application was available, Burns said, “That was their call.”
But Burns said perhaps a longer grace period – eight to ten minutes – “might be a little more consumer friendly.”
Michael “Mickey” Herbert, the new head of the Bridgeport Regional Business Council, said he has not fielded complaints from member businesses about the meters. But, Herbert emphasized, if the new technology is a problem, he wants to hear about it.
“I would suggest it probably is growing pains,” Herbert said. “But, by golly, if I hadn’t been downtown a long time and came down and got a $40 ticket from some robot meter, I might never want to come back. … There ought to be a full scale effort to make sure visitors know how this works. We are trying to promote downtown businesses and do the best we can for them.”