Meter maintenance

Downtown Missoula parking set to enter the digital age



Parking on downtown Missoula streets will soon become more convenient now that a deal has been inked to replace all 1,100 of the city's vintage parking meters with state-of-the-art pay stations. The new system, to be installed this fall, will allow users to pay by credit card and add time from their cellphone. Leftover time will follow the car's license plate. It will reduce the number of curbside meters by a factor of 10, and they'll be solar powered. It will also double the price of parking.

The Missoula Parking Commission approved a $1.4 million meter contract with T2 Systems on July 30, and earlier this month the commission's board of directors agreed upon a new rate structure to help pay for it. The scheme, as expected, will bump the hourly rate to $1 for each of the first two hours. It will eliminate the two-hour limit for most spaces, but longer stays will cost significantly more, MPC Director Anne Guest says.

After two hours, the rate will increase 50 cents per hour: $1.50 for the third hour, $2 for the fourth, up to $4 for the eighth hour. A full eight-hour day in a street space will cost $22.

Guest says the commission opted for a progressive rate structure to encourage downtown shoppers to continue using meters for shorter stays, while heading for the Park Place garage for longer trips. "Ideally, in a vibrant downtown like Missoula, you want to have your on-street parking to be the most expensive," she says. "You want your on-street rates to escalate at a level that won't be encouraging employees to sit on the street." In fact, the garage, where the first hour is free, will now be cheaper than on-street parking for any length of time.

Raising rates was a necessary and anticipated component of the switch to a modernized parking system that incorporates credit card payment, Guest says. "Our current rate at 50 cents an hour is very, very low," she says, adding that the upcoming rates are still fairly low, comparatively speaking. On-street parking is cheaper, or free, in other Montana cities, but Guest says Missoula's downtown is more comparable to other northwestern cities, where rates tend to be higher.

Selecting a new system has been an 18-month process that included public questionnaires, open houses and a vendor showcase. T2 Systems was selected from six bids, Guest says. Its proposal "fell in the middle" of the bids, but was the commission's unanimous preference after gathering public feedback.

One of the 1,100 vintage parking meters in downtown Missoula sits broken on a recent morning. The 65-year old meters will be retired later this year once a $1.4 million computerized system is installed. - PHOTO BY DEREK BROUWER
  • photo by Derek Brouwer
  • One of the 1,100 vintage parking meters in downtown Missoula sits broken on a recent morning. The 65-year old meters will be retired later this year once a $1.4 million computerized system is installed.

After the switch, downtown streets won't have individual meters; customers instead will walk to one of 117 pay stations to input the car's license plate number into the machine. "Then your license plate becomes your account," Guest says. The new machines will continue accepting coins, though the commission is still hammering out what the minimum purchase will be. It's possible that a nickel or dime won't be enough to save the spot while you order lunch.

However, by linking payment to the vehicle, the new system will credit excess time to individual vehicles. Another feature will allow users to add time to the meter through text message.

"Say you're down at Break Espresso, having a great conversation. It will send a message saying your time is almost up," Guest says.

She anticipates the new meters will be up and running by the end of the year. It's a big change for a downtown that has grown alongside its gray metal meters since 1948. The meters have become difficult to maintain and often break. But Guest says they have been faithful servants and hopes to find a creative way to give them new life.

The computer-based system, meanwhile, will streamline maintenance and ticketing as well, and is expected to increase revenue. Meter revenue was around $472,000 last year, plus another $210,000 from fines. Meter revenue could more than double with the new progressive rate, according to commission projections. A commission rate worksheet estimates that simply introducing credit/debit card payment could bring in another $90,000 each year. The MPC operates quasi-independently of city government, meaning all revenue stays with the commission.

It's too early to tell exactly how the switchover will affect MPC's bottom line, whether by increased revenues or cost-saving efficiencies. Guest says the rates were set at a rough "break-even point" with the cost of purchasing and installing the new system.

One aspect that will remain familiar: parking fines. No changes are planned there, Guest says.


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