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Pay-by-cell system eyed as downtown parking option

Free curbside parking near HSBC Arena or along the waterfront on event nights could become a thing of the past as the city explores smartphone technology as a new tool for raising revenue.

The city is eyeing a project that would add a pay-by-cellphone component to its downtown parking matrix. Under a plan being pushed by Parking Commissioner Kevin J. Helfer, motorists would pull up to a spot, visit a website via their cellphone, punch in a street code, then use a credit card to pay for parking.

"What it does for municipalities is that it saves an incredible amount of money in infrastructure costs," Helfer said Wednesday.

Helfer said the city's current free parking policy after 5 p.m. raises a serious question on 50 or 60 nights each year when special events bring throngs of people downtown. In many cases, he said, motorists are snaring free curbside spots right next to lots that are charging $15 or more for parking.

"Does that make good economic sense? If we're running the city like a business, shouldn't we be charging for that?" Helfer asked.

He said a "fair price" might be $5 or $6 for event parking.

Parking officials have been talking with vendors about the pay-by-cell option. Helfer said he will meet with one vendor today to further explore high-technology options as Buffalo continues to update its metered parking system. The city still has about 1,200 single-head meters.

"They always seem like they're broken," said First Deputy Mayor Steven M. Casey.

Helfer said many meters malfunction due to dead batteries, especially during cold weather. In other instances, meters become jammed -- sometimes by motorists who intentionally sabotage them.

The city is looking to replace many of the aging single-head meters with new devices that will accept credit cards as well as coins, Helfer said Wednesday during a meeting with the city's accountability panel.

But replacing all 1,200 meters in the city could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars at a time when Buffalo remains on a debt diet.

"We've encouraged [vendors] to be as creative as possible in the financing structure," Helfer said.

For example, Helfer is hoping vendors might consider accepting a small percentage of parking revenue in return for the meters.

That's what makes the pay-by-cell option so attractive, Helfer said.

"Pay-by-cell truly is a dream. You have no infrastructure costs," he said.

But Finance Commissioner Janet Penksa raised concerns that some motorists who don't have smartphones would be blocked from parking at the city spots.

"You don't want to make parking be an elitist system where only people who are technologically advanced and have enough money to have a smartphone are able to park there," she said.

Casey wondered aloud why the city can't install some meters and also introduce pay-by-cell parking on streets near HSBC Arena.

"You could. It's just about money, sir. That's all it comes down to," Helfer said.

He argued that it's hard to justify paying $500 for a single-head meter at a spot that will only be heavily utilized 50 or 60 times a year.

Helfer would like to try the pay-by-cell option at about 100 spots near the arena.

He said the technology offers some impressive features. For example, he said a motorist who comes downtown for a meeting would get a text message shortly before their parking expires reminding them that they should purchase more time.

"It's the wave of the future," Helfer said of the new technology. "It's where everyone is going."