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Days of feeding the parking meter in Buffalo may be over

The days of digging into the bottom of a purse, or a crack of a car seat for that quarter to feed the meter are on their way out.

Buffalo is in the process of requesting proposals for contracts that will establish how motorists pay for on-street city parking for years to come.

Smartphones are expected to be a key part of the parking payment system, as soon as next year.

It will happen throughout the city and when it happens, motorists will be able to find a parking spot next to a meter and never even pick up a quarter.

Instead, they’ll download a free parking application on their phone, connect it to a credit card, and pay the meter fee – all before leaving their car.

Same goes for when a motorist is on a street covered by a Pay and Display machine.

No tickets to put on the windshield. Just follow the prompts from the app. No need to even stop by the Pay and Display machine.

All the convenience will come with one catch: A credit card fee, typically 20 or 30 cents per transaction, paid to the company providing the smartphone meter app.

The city will work to obtain the lowest possible transaction fee for residents, city Parking Commissioner Kevin Helfer said. The fee is one of the items included in a Request for Proposals the city plans to issue soon.

“It’s the wave of the future,” Helfer said.

Meter readers will still patrol the streets to see if cars are paid up when the system is in place, he said, but in addition to checking the meter for an “expired” reading, or looking for a ticket on a windshield, the meter readers will place their hand-held scanners against registration stickers to see if the motorists are paid up for their parking.

The smartphone feature is only half of the system that will be in place at each of the city’s 3,900 on-street paid parking spots, Helfer said.

Recognizing that everyone doesn’t have a smartphone, and that even some who do don’t always have their phones with them, the city still will have parking meters or Pay and Display machines at all of its on-street pay-to-park spots, Helfer said.

These pay-to-park devices are also being updated as the city tries to determine which type of hardware works best for collecting parking fees on different streets.

The goal is to create an efficient parking system, Helfer said.

The city has no plans to raise its $1 per hour parking fees, he said. The city currently takes in about $1.8 million from parking meters and machines, before expenses. The city has no plans to increase that revenue, he said.

Having an efficient program becomes increasingly important, Helfer said, as downtown Buffalo becomes more vibrant and businesses want to make sure there is appropriate turnover of vehicles parked on the streets. That means not allowing motorists to park on the street as if they were in an all-day parking garage.

And it means placing meters with the highest operating costs in area with the highest volume and turnover, and the least-costly meters in other areas, including the periphery, where there is less traffic.

“The goal is to get the right meters at the right places, to get us maximum efficiency,” Helfer said.

Buffalo for the past 10 years has used a combination of traditional mechanical, coin-only meters and Pay and Display machines that take cash or credit cards.

Over the past year, the city has been testing a third type of equipment, an electronic meter that takes cash or credit cards. The city has about 50 of those machines, all on Court and Bryant streets.

All three systems have pros and cons, Helfer said. And each can be most efficient in specific parts of the city.

The electronic meters that take credit cards provide convenience, and because they are electronic, provide the city with valuable data on parking use and also constant reports that reduce the likelihood of theft. The machines, however, are expensive to purchase and operate, Helfer said. They only make sense to use in high volume areas, he said.

The Pay and Display machines also offer the convenience of credit cards, but some motorists could face a walk if they park at the far end of a street covered by a Pay and Display machine.

Also, each machine costs the city about $10,000, he said.

That’s why the city is about to issue a request for proposals to have the city’s 125 existing Pay and Display meters refurbished, rather than replaced.

The least-expensive meters to purchase and operate are the coin-only mechanical machines, Helfer said. The city recently updated 500 of its mechanical machines for $135 each.

“They are much more modest in price and last longer,” he said. “They will last 20 years for $135.”

But on the flip said, he said, the mechanical machines can’t provide the system with any data on how they are being used, and are inconvenient to motorists who don’t have quarters.