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Parking meters come back to Niagara Falls – with high-tech twist

NIAGARA FALLS – Parking meters are a given in most cities, especially those that are tourist destinations. But not in Niagara Falls.

The city “has left money on the table” by not having meters, according to Mayor Paul A. Dyster as he and the City Council have bickered over the issue for years.

The controversy goes back before Dyster took office. Past City Councils under former mayors Irene Elia and Vince Anello have debated meters since 2003.

But the Council took a huge step in March, approving a plan to install nearly 40 meters that will cover 244 spaces in the downtown hotel and tourism district, including Old Falls Street; Rainbow Boulevard, Niagara Street and adjacent side streets, as well as Third and First streets surface lots.

The state-of-the art solar and Wi-Fi enabled meters were installed this past week and are expected to be operational on or near Memorial Day.

The plan works off a study that was submitted to the city by Desman Associates in 2011.

City Council Chairman Andrew Touma spoke during the City Council meeting about the importance of meters for traffic management, which he said promotes business and reduces congestion.

“For years we have had people park themselves in front of businesses and spend the entire day there, which limits the customers for that business. It is unfair to those businesses that are trying to make money downtown to not have a parking plan,” Touma said.

He said people come to Niagara Falls expecting to pay for parking and having meters on the street will push people into lots, which charge for parking.

Councilman Charles Walker, who eventually approved the plan, had been a critic of the unknown costs of management associated with meters, but he said he has always been in favor of meters downtown.

BerNational Automation of Rochester was eventually awarded a $355,190 contract to install the meters in March, and casino funding was used for the project. The rate for parking is expected to be $2 to $3 per hour, although the cost could vary in the offseason. The rates must be officially approved by the Council. In addition the Council approved spending a one-time fee of $86,250 for software/license plate reader technology and an annual licensing fee of $4,000 for the software.

The City Council has just dipped a toe in the water with this first phase, but plans could phase in automated parking meter systems at other city lots and parking ramps downtown.

City to run program

Unlike the single-space meters of the past, where people insert a coin and pop back to “feed the meter” when it gets low, these smart meters patrol several spaces, allow cash or credit/debit cards and interact with cellphones.

Enforcement is also high-tech, using license plate reader technology. Unlike the “meter maids” of the past, police will be able to scan the cars’ license plates as they drive down the street to check for compliance.

This will not be a privatized parking plan. All the profits will go to the city and the work will be handled by city employees. No additional staff will be needed. Enforcement and maintenance will be handled by a city police traffic officer as part of his or her regular downtown duties and three city public works employees will be trained to handle necessary maintenance. Fees from the meters are expected to pay for these employees and additional employees as needed.

Some have complained that there is not enough parking demand in the city to warrant the meter system.

But Public Works Director John Caso praised the new system, saying it will keep traffic flowing.

“Parking is going to be in big demand. Right now it is our peak time and our lots and the state lots fill up. The streets fill up,” Caso said. “The meters are there to move along the traffic. If someone works downtown and can park on the street all day – they are going to park on the street all day.”

He said the added work will not be a problem for his employees.

“There’s computers in place so the supervisor can see, from the office, how full the meter is and if it needs to be emptied,” Caso said. “They won’t have to emptying them every day.”

According to BerNational, each meter can accommodate 6,500 receipts before the tape needs to be replaced.

There will be no cash in the hands of employees since the cash boxes are sealed and turned over to a bank in a sealed pod.

Police Superintendant E. Bryan DalPorto told the Council in March that the $86,250 cost for the license plate reader and annual fee was vital.

“We can still do enforcement by walking the beat and observing violations – the same way we do it now. However, there would be no efficiency and speed. With the license plate reader, you can patrol the area and go on and do other things. I think it’s important to the success of the project.”

Catching violators

He said the plate reader would catch any violations when officers patrol the area and a buzzer would go off and tell them when to write a ticket. A tablet that comes with the system will be used to print out tickets.

DalPorto said the plate readers that his and other departments already have are not compatible with the parking application since it is used mainly for criminal investigations.

“It’s apples and oranges. The plate readers we have now do read plates, but the downloads only occur once a day. That doesn’t work when you are looking at two hour parking, which is almost in real time,” said DalPorto.

Dyster said the software allows police to be more efficient when they are patrolling the city.

William A. Bernatovich, project manager for BerNational, said the meters can easily be programmed to change fees.

He said managing the meters via license plate readers also allows for flexible enforcement.

“There’s a parking lot where you park RVs and Jefferson Apartments are over there,” he said. “If you’re a resident, you can put your license plate in the database so that when I drive through and do enforcement, it will say, ‘That’s OK. You can park there.’ ”

Caso said this system allows residents or business owners to apply for special rates as well.

“In New York City (where BerNational has 14,000 of these meters) they are looking at data mining, which allows the city and the public to see where there is available parking and also lets the city see what the trends are,” said Bernatovich

Bernatovich called meters like these part of the “smart cities of the future” with self-driving cars using the interactive technology of the meters to find open parking spots.

The smart technology also allows visitors to monitor their parking via an app and add funds when the meter runs low.

Although this is not part of the first phase of the project, these meters have a display that in the future could be upgraded to include information on city events or advertising

“I don’t think they will be too hard to use, but we are going to have the (Niagara Falls Police) Rangers down there who can help people,” Caso said.