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Jones considering big changes to St. Louis parking

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon - In her own words, St. Louis Treasurer Tishaura Jones is trying to bring the city’s parking infrastructure from the 19th century into the 21st century. 

In a city with 10,000 metered parking spaces, accomplishing that task may seem daunting.

Jones has been holding town halls to gauge public opinions about altering the city’s parking infrastructure. Her office issued a request for proposals for parking meter management earlier in October.

Jones’ office has already held two town hall meetings in downtown and south St. Louis. Thursday's town hall is at 6 p.m. at the Central Reform Congregation. Another is scheduled for 6 p.m., Tues., Nov. 12 at the O’Fallon Park Recreational Complex in north city.

Besides providing more information about the treasurer’s office’s duties and responsibilities, Jones said the forums are a way to ask “people’s opinion before we’re going to go forward” with newer parking technologies.

“People want to pay with alternative methods,” Jones said.

During today's town hall, Jones told the audience, including several elected officials, about two long-term goals.

The first was allowing credit cards or smartphone applications for paying for parking. Jones’ office already dispatched parking meters that take credit cards earlier this year in the Central West End.

“You hear the call from people who come to St. Louis and say ‘I don’t have coins. I want to use my cell phone, or I want to use my credit card,’” Jones said. “We want to give people the ability to pay for on and off street parking with more than cash.”

To a question about whether pay-by-app may slow turnover at spaces around business, Jones said it was possible to limit the times a person can reload. “Maybe they can only reload to up to 30 minutes once or twice,” she said. “That way, that space would at least turn over once over 3 hours or 2.5 hours.”

Another long-term goal, she said, is to make it possible to pay a ticket immediately online. Now people need to wait 48 hours before they can pay.

“We want to reduce that two-day lag time instantly,” she said. “As soon as you see that you have a parking ticket on your car, you can go online and pay it instantly to go about your day.”

“Will you still be mad? Yeah,” she added. “But at least you can pay it when you think about it, rather than going online and not paying it – and then you forget.”

State Rep. Michele Kratky, D-St. Louis, asked during the forum whether the fine could be reduced if people pay within 24 hours. In response, Jones said money collected by the treasurer’s office is already pledged to existing debt.

“So anything we do to alter that revenue stream may be frowned upon by our bondholders. But it’s always a possibility,” Jones said. “We can always go back and say ‘OK we’re looking at this, what do you think?’”Jones also said that her office is “tossing around the idea” of putting times when meters are active on street signs. That was in response to a concern from Alderman Tom Villa, D-11th Ward, that “times are kind of washed out or the sun bleaches them.”

“I don’t use parking meters that often, but when I do… I was confused,” Villa said. “And I’m easily confused. The marking on them should be easy to understand.”

Looking ahead

After the end of the proposal deadline on Nov. 22, Jones wants to “pilot projects” around the city in mid-December. That will involve vendors implementing their technologies at 40 to 60 spaces from January to June. 

"We want to see how it operates in a St. Louis winter," said Jones, adding that the vendors' parking mechanisms will be provided to the city for free during the trials.

There would be a mechanism for customers to provide feedback, most likely through an online survey, Jones added.

“Based on your feedback – also the cost and what it costs to implement and a whole host of other factors – we’ll announce the winner in July and begin implementation from July 2014 until the end of the year or until we’re done,” Jones said. “Because 10,000 meters isn’t going to happen overnight.”

Jones said her office has seen other cities experience revenue increases “where they’ve instituted new technology.” That includes, she said, both meter revenue and ticket collection, adding that people “will still take a chance and not feed the meter.”

Jones said the “more revenue we make, the faster we can diffuse our debt” and “the more money we can give back to the city.”

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.