Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2008

Commuter encounters glitch in parking machines

Error by another driver results in a fine at Silver Spring garage; county says mistakes are rare with automated system

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Nicholas Galladora parks his car in the Silver Spring Cameron Street/Fenwick Lane garage every day, each time punching in his parking space number to an automated pay machine and paying for a full day. But on June 4, he returned to his spot at 5:05 p.m. only to find a parking ticket issued at 3 p.m. plastered on his windshield.

Perplexed, he called the number on his ticket and a man told him this sort of thing happens all the time: Galladora paid for a full day, someone came by later in the day and punched in Galladora's parking space number, paying for only an hour and overwriting his payment.

"It really is a hassle," he said.

The Cameron Street/Fenwick Lane garage is one of two in the county, the other being on Amherst Drive in Wheaton, with an automated pre-pay parking machine, said Rick Siebert, chief of management services and property development with the parking division in the county's Department of Transportation. The machines, which have been in the county for 20 years, two years at the Cameron Street/Fenwick Lane garage, require patrons to type in their parking space numbers and the length of time they plan to be there.

Siebert acknowledged someone can punch in the wrong space and overwrite a payment, but he said it is rare.

"First, you've got to type the wrong space in, then you've got to type the wrong space in for a space where there's another car. Then the car has to stay parked there after your time is up," he said.

But that's exactly what happened to Galladora. And now, he said, he has to shuffle through late fees, parking division bureaucracy and even a court date to fight his ticket.

The original $35 fee is up to $85, a fine Galladora said he has to pay before heading to court because he didn't contest the ticket by the 15-day deadline.

"I'm pulling my hair out because now I have to give them $85," he said.

But Siebert said parking services gives patrons who contest their parking tickets a grace period. The standard is 15 days to make a payment or contest the ticket, he said. If the ticket is contested, parking services will issue a decision within two weeks and the patron has another 15 days to pay fines.

"The clock is re-started," he said, adding no late fees ratchet up during that process.

And if the ticket is cleared (through proof of a receipt), all late fees are waived, he said.

Even though Galladora's ticket will most likely be thrown out, he has to miss a day's pay to fight a violation he didn't commit, he said.

"It would still be costing me more than the fine because I'd have to lose work hours," he said.

So why is the pre-paid automated system used? Siebert said it eliminates the long lines traditionally found at cashier-pay garages.

"When you pull into the garage, there [are] no gates, so there's no delay or any lines," he said.

The machines also eliminate the problem of free-loaders who stored their cars overnight in the garage for free and only drove on the weekends, Siebert said.

It was a huge problem two years ago when the Cameron Street/Fenwick Lane garage had a cashier, he said, as almost 200 spaces were constantly filled.

"At about 10 a.m., it was normally full," he said. With the new system, there are 50 open spaces at any given time in the 900-car garage, he said.

But the system is not without problems. In addition to overwriting, as was the case with Galladora, "cross audits" can occur. When police officers scan the machine with a handheld wireless device for unpaid spots, Siebert said it's possible to pass a patron who just parked and is on his way to the machine.

Like the overwrite glitch, Siebert said the cross-audit ticket can be contested and the fine waived. He said the county does not receive a significant number of complaints on either.

The machines are manufactured by California-based VenTek International. Ray Lucas, the director of client services for VenTek, said any activity in the machine is logged into a master server, which can be easily checked by the county. Another advantage is the versatility of payment.

The Montgomery County pay-by-space machines accept bills up to $20 and Siebert said they will take credit and debit cards in the coming months.

Despite the technology, Galladora questioned why the software hasn't been changed to eliminate errors associated with overwriting.

Siebert said that it hasn't been necessary because receipts prove someone's innocence. The machines' convenience, he said, far outweighs their problems.

Galladora concedes for the most part, the machines are convenient.

"I've never had to wait more than a minute to get all paid up," he said. "But it's not going to be worth it if I'm just getting these tickets."