Parking meters that operate with the swish of a credit card rather than the clink of spare change will soon be popping up on some downtown Omaha streets.
The city is taking proposals through the end of next week for the new meters, which will come equipped with their own card reader and accept several types of credit and debit cards. Officials plan to decide quickly on the type of meter and begin swapping them for the old, coin-operated versions by early 2013.
It's one of the first steps of a systemwide parking overhaul that likely will include new rates at meters and in city garages and longer enforcement hours. Beginning this week the city will have a parking manager on staff for the first time, overseeing the transitions.
City Engineer Todd Pfitzer said each of the changes will play an important role in fixing a system that's been losing money year after year.
“It's been fractured, and ultimately it's not been managed effectively,” Pfitzer said.
It's not clear exactly how many new meters will be installed right away, or where they'll be installed. The city has about $200,000 budgeted for meters this year and the same amount for next year, traffic maintenance engineer Mike Paukert said.
He said the goal isn't necessarily to replace everything. Some 10-hour meters, for example, don't get as much turnover and wouldn't be as useful as card-reading machines.
But the more new meters that are installed, the more information they'll provide to the city. Each will be able to communicate wirelessly with a central system, sending updates when a card reader isn't working properly or when a meter's coin storage area is full.
Drivers will be able to use either credit cards or coins with the new meters.
It's possible that some of that information eventually could be translated into a tool for drivers that could provide information about when parking spots are occupied. That kind of information also can help the city determine where to direct its parking resources — and solve its current problem of plenty of empty spaces in garages as drivers circle the Old Market waiting for a space at the curb to open up.
A recent study funded by the city and several groups, including the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce and the Metropolitan Entertainment and Convention Authority, found that only 54 percent of the available parking in the Old Market is used on busy evenings.
“You need to make sure people are aware of the spots, have access to them, convenience — all of those factors to make a customer-friendly experience possible,” said Joe Gudenrath, executive director of the Downtown Improvement District.
The city is seeking proposals from companies that make meters that allow customers to pre-pay for parking before the start of enforcement hours. They would also be programmed to accept special event parking rates.
Paukert said it's possible the new meters could come with higher rates, but those have not been set.
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