Chicago parking meters: Changes leave drivers angry, confused
Transition to private management causing problems across city
By Jon Hilkevitch
March 20, 2009
Chicago's abrupt transfer of parking meters to a private company has drivers and business owners angry about erroneous overcharges and confusing enforcement rules.
The problems come on top of a fourfold increase in rates at meters this year that has sent motorists searching for quarters in seat cushions and merchants complaining that the new on-street parking regulations have hurt their business.
During spot checks around the city, the Tribune found:
•Outdated fee and violation-enforcement information still posted on many meters since the city switched from six parking zones to three.
•Meters that, regardless of what the stickers indicate, charge the wrong hourly rates for the zone in which they are located, increasing the chance of vehicles being ticketed. For example, in the 1800 block of North Clybourn Avenue, an area where 25 cents is supposed to buy 15 minutes of parking time, meter No. 279089 provides only seven minutes for a quarter. A black marker was used to cover up the "15" on the meter's rate sticker with "7."
•A surge in broken meters, many overstuffed with coins.
•Stepped-up writing of tickets for parking-meter violations.
"I put in a quarter and another quarter and nothing happened, so I'm putting in one more quarter before giving up," Sally Johnson, a Rogers Park resident, said as she tried to feed a meter recently on Wells Street downtown. The meter is in the central business district zone, where the new hourly rate is $2. But the sticker on the meter gives the rate as the old one of $1 for two hours.
Officials acknowledge that the number of calls from the public about parking-meter problems has increased since the Daley administration and Chicago Parking Meters LLC completed a sale of the city's approximately 36,000 meters Feb. 13. The 75-year lease netted the city an upfront payment of almost $1.2 billion, making the deal the biggest long-term concession agreement of its type in the U.S. Chicago Parking Meters receives all revenue—except for fines—from the parking-meter system for the 75 years.
The company and its subcontractor, LAZ Parking, took over responsibility for the management and maintenance of the meters the same day the deal was done.
The companies declined to provide a summary of the calls they have received. "We haven't yet broken out what we consider a complaint or other communications," said Carissa Ramirez, a spokeswoman for Chicago Parking Meters.
But the company hopes to get a grip on the snafus soon, Ramirez said, adding, "We anticipate this transition period to be completed by April 10."
In response to a question about whether the firms are meeting the obligations of their contract, Ed Walsh, spokesman for the Chicago Department of Revenue, said: "We feel it is too early to evaluate performance."
But hardware store owner Dan O'Donnell said broken parking meters could be found along Armitage Avenue, and for two weeks no one from the city or the parking concessionaire showed up to do anything. The higher meter rates required drivers to put in many more quarters, which caused the meters to fill up and break down if they were not emptied, O'Donnell said.
"The meters filled up with quarters in only about a day, and no one is coming by to empty them out," O'Donnell said Tuesday. The quadrupling of parking rates this year has harmed his business, Armitage Hardware and Building Supply, 925 W. Armitage, he said.
"Why come to the hardware store for a 25-cent screw when it costs $1 or $2 to park while you're shopping? People are afraid to come in and get change for the meter because they'll go back to their car and find a ticket,
" O'Donnell said.
On Wednesday, after a reporter, a photographer and a videographer from the Tribune made separate visits over two days to the broken meters on Armitage, a crew was sent out to empty the devices of quarters and repair the meters, O'Donnell said.
The increase in parking-meter rates this year means that it takes eight quarters to park for two hours in city neighborhoods, 28 quarters to park for two hours in the Loop
and 16 quarters in the central business district.
Chicago Parking Meters has six months to introduce cashless options, including credit cards, so that people don't have to carry around bundles of quarters.
Meanwhile, the number of malfunctioning meters—identified by "FAIL" in the digital window—appears to be increasing since on-street parking was outsourced.
At a meter at Wells and Hubbard Streets, where the hourly parking rate is $2, the mismarked decal on the meter gives the rate as 30 minutes for each quarter. But that's no bargain because inserting quarters into the coin slot doesn't result in any time being credited, as the clock remains at "0:00."
Motorists should be able to park without being ticketed at a meter that says "FAIL," according to city officials.
"It's important for motorists to call in malfunctioning meters to 744-PARK or 311," Walsh said. "This can be used later as a defense to an issued ticket, if need be."
LAZ Parking also lists a number on the meters that have the updated stickers, 877-242-7901.
Outdated information on some meter stickers makes drivers vulnerable to receiving tickets. The old stickers still in place erroneously say that meters must be fed only on weekdays; the new policy is that meter rates apply seven days a week and for more hours each day.
The parking-meter companies last weekend exercised an option in the contract that allows them to ticket vehicles parked at expired meters, Walsh said. Chicago police officers and parking enforcement aides also continue to write tickets, and the city will keep all fines collected.
Asked why the concessionaire would spend resources on ticketing even though it cannot keep any fines, Pete Scales of the Chicago Department of Budget and Management said, "That extra enforcement is an added incentive to fill the meters."
There is a flip side to the clumsy handoff of parking meters to private management. Some drivers are saving money after having figured out locations near their jobs where meters are undercharging.
On North Dayton Street near the busy North Avenue retail district, 25 cents will still get you an hour's parking at dozens of meters, instead of the current rate of $1 an hour in city neighborhoods. The old stickers on the meters also say the parking rates apply from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, even though the rules were changed to 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day of the week, including holidays.
"You could seriously ruin this for me by letting out the secret," Mark Sloan told a reporter after he parked his Nissan Sentra on Dayton and headed toward a tavern for happy hour. "This is my beer money we're talking about."