Birmingham Explores Electronic Payment Options for Meters

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More options may be on the way for street parking in Birmingham.
More options may be on the way for street parking in Birmingham.

Sherrel Wheeler Stewart,WBHM 90.3 FM

If you park at a meter in downtown Birmingham or on Southside, you’d better be carrying change. It takes up to eight quarters to park for two hours in some places. But in an age when mobile apps and credit cards reign, the city is looking to give drivers options.

That’s good news for people like Patricia Ervin, a medical office worker. She recently made a quick trip to the county courthouse in downtown Birmingham. After circling the block a few times, she found a parking spot.

But she had to find money for the meter.

“I got here, and I’m like, I had to scrounge up some change because I don’t keep cash or change on me. All I’ve got is my debit card,” she says.

She found 50 cents. Around Linn Park, 50 cents will buy you 30 minutes.  If the meter expires, of course, there’s a chance of getting a parking ticket.

But some city officials want to give drivers options. One would be to pay with a credit card–either at a pay station or through a mobile app. Another option would be to call a toll-free number to pay.

Councilman Darrell O’Quinn, chairman of the city’s transportation committee, says in the next few months, the committee plans to test these alternative payment methods.

Three companies have made presentations on parking payment alternatives.

“We would invite these companies to essentially show us what they’ve got,” he says.

Then the city would identify an area for testing where parking meters are not functional, he says.

Birmingham has about 4,500 parking meters, city officials say. Many of them are broken. Right now, if you park at a broken meter, you don’t have to pay. That would change with a new system, O’Quinn says.

“You would still have to pay by dialing a 1 -800 number or paying through a mobile app,” he says.

If you make it easier to pay for parking, O’Quinn believes more people will pay. City officials say about 40 percent of the people who get parking tickets don’t pay them. The city loses thousands of dollars every year in uncollected parking fines. More payment options could mean more revenue for the city, O’Quinn says.

That’s what happened in Coral Gables, Florida. That city upgraded its parking app about six years ago, says parking director Kevin Kinney. Since that time, he estimates city parking revenue increased annually from $6 million to $9 million dollars.

“You can still go to the pay station and use a credit card or bills. But at this point almost 67 percent of our transactions for street parking happen through pay by phone,” Kinney says.

There are a few steps for drivers. They download an app, enter their car tag number and credit or debit info. Enforcement officers can scan a tag to verify a driver has paid. A few minutes before time runs out, drivers get an alert on their phones.

Kinney says the system is working out well.

“It took some people a little bit longer to adopt new technologies and get comfortable with how things are done now. But at this point it seems like everybody’s pretty happy with the new systems,” he says.

O’Quinn says he’s hoping for similar success in Birmingham. He wants to test the electronic payment options this summer and get feedback from residents before the city makes changes.