ROANOKE — A 90-day trial of parking meters in downtown Roanoke started Monday, six weeks before a similar but longer test is set to take effect in downtown Charlottesville.
“The goal of the pilot is really to provide more access to more people for these high-demand on-street spaces,” said Wyatt Poats, general manager of Park Roanoke, a for-profit organization that manages surface and on-street parking as part of a contract with the city of Roanoke.
The same philosophy is driving the city of Charlottesville to begin a six-month pilot of its own beginning Sept. 5.
Park Roanoke has installed seven meters to regulate parking in 65 spaces that previously had been set aside for free one-hour parking in Roanoke’s Market District.
The two pilot programs are different in many ways, but both share the same goal of getting people to pay for spots closer to downtown destinations.
“For longer-term parking, we would encourage people to park in lower-demand areas, whether that be in a garage or on a street that doesn’t have time restrictions,” Poats said.
Charlottesville’s pilot program will be clustered around the Downtown Mall and will cover 105 spaces. The price for metered spots will be $1.80 an hour, but motorists who park in the city-owned Market Street Parking Garage will get one hour free.
Roanoke’s pilot is different.
“The important thing to note is that the first hour [on street] remains free in the pilot areas but you do have to initiate the meter,” Poats said. “It is license-plate based so you simply walk up to the meter and punch in your license plate information.”
In Roanoke, the price for the second hour of on-street parking is $1 and the third is $3. That means it costs $4 to park for a maximum stay of three hours.
One of seven solar-powered meters is installed on Salem Avenue, a street that was in the shade at noon on Monday. There was enough charge for the kiosk to work anyway.
One man in a pickup truck glanced up at a Pay to Park sign after exiting his vehicle, exclaimed frustration and then got back in his car and drive off. A woman who drove a sedan walked right past the meter after parking.
At least one visitor to downtown Roanoke on Monday said he didn’t have a problem using the system.
“The way it was set previously, you only had an hour, so it was free anyways,” said Aaron Altice. “The difference is you can pay and leave it. It’s not a big deal in my mind. I don’t see it as a problem.”
Altice said he understood the idea is to free up more parking spaces during the day. But a customer of Fret Mill Music on Salem Avenue was not pleased.
“I parked and I was coming here to the music store like I often do,” said Stephen Paul of Roanoke. “I saw the signs and I think it’s ridiculous and I didn’t pay.”
When he drove up, Paul was unaware of the pilot.
“I don’t think the city did a very good job of warning people,” he said. “It’s hard enough to get people to come downtown.”
Aaron Oberg, a manager at Fret Mill Music, served on the committee that helped establish the pilot program. He is skeptical of the meters.
“I think it’s going to help the main issue of there not being parking down here, but it’s not the right approach,” Oberg said. “It’s going to chase off everybody.”
Oberg said parking on streets in the Market District has been taken up by employees of businesses in that area for years. He said Roanoke should be doing more to get downtown employees to stop parking on city streets.
“I think [the meters are] going to help get the abusers off the street but I think it’s going to create a whole other problem,” Oberg said. “The hardest part is going to be educating our customers to tell them it is OK. It’s still free. Nothing has changed. You just have to enter your license plate number.”
A Roanoke woman named Kathy who did not want to give her last name said the touch-screen parking meters made sense.
“This one worked very well,” she said. “If I was going to be shopping around, I would stretch it to that extra hour and pay for it rather than run around to get back here,” she said, adding that she does not think the meters will keep her from coming downtown.
Another customer of Fret Mill Music was slightly daunted by his experience with the meter.
“It was not user-friendly,” said Joey Stockton, a musician who frequently plays shows in downtown Roanoke. “At one point, when I put my credit card in, it threw me back to the beginning and I had to put my card in again. I don’t like putting my card information in, especially if I’m only here for one hour.”
Shortly after Stockton received his paper receipt for an hour of free parking, an attendant with Park Roanoke introduced himself and explained that payment information is not required for those who plan to stay less than an hour.
These “ambassadors” from Park Roanoke will be outside each meter for the next week to show people how to operate the meters.
“We want to make sure we’re helping people,” Poats said.
An attendant can walk up a street with a device that can show which cars have registered and which have not.
“If there’s an over-stay or non-payment, there could be a citation,” Poats said. “The citation is set by City Council, and so we are adopting the same $20 [fine] that is currently set for other on-street infractions.”
All revenues go into the city of Roanoke’s parking fund. Charlottesville’s City Council created a similar set-up for revenues from the Market Street Parking Garage and the parking meters.
Poats said Roanoke, Charlottesville and other cities that are bringing new meters to downtown areas are doing so to help drive business — not to hinder it.
“Economic indicators have really pointed to utilizing these smart meters as a way to drive turnover,” Poats said. “The method of chalking tires and other techniques really isn’t quite as practical. This helps create more transparency for the customer. You know exactly when you parked. You know how much time you have.”
Roanoke’s meters are active between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. weekdays. Charlottesville’s meters will be active from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday. The system also includes a smartphone app called Whoosh that can allow payment to be extended remotely. Charlottesville's program will also have an app from the company Parkmobile.
Charlottesville's pilot program begins on Tuesday, September 5.