CHAMPAIGN — City council members hope drivers didn't ditch their coins and CashKeys yet.
The credit card-reading "smart meters" officials were testing on Walnut Street and Chester Street in downtown Champaign will start disappearing after the city council decided this week they preferred the more familiar parking meters that were replaced last year.
That means, for now, no more paying for parking with plastic.
"I like to consider myself an early adopter of new technology ... but I'm really frustrated personally by the meters," said council member Deborah Frank Feinen. "And I've heard from a lot of other people, especially in the downtown area where they're being tested, that they're frustrated as well."
Last summer, council members approved of the trial project that replaced 37 parking meters in high-traffic downtown areas with the meters that allow drivers to swipe credit or debit cards or pay with coins.
The meters produced 17 percent more revenue, said management analyst Patti Anderson, and about one-quarter of all the transactions were on debit or credit cards. The average card transaction was $1.15, compared with the average 55-cent transaction with coins.
That revenue bump includes 46 percent more parking tickets — an anomaly that city administrators had a hard time explaining to the council this week.
"Nothing changed. We didn't spend more time enforcing there. We followed all our normal procedures. We rotated our officers around as we normally did," said administrative services manager Elizabeth Hannan.
Feinen said she has a theory.
"I have a CashKey. And even though I know we have smart meters and I sit on the city council, I park downtown, and I get out of my car, and I don't have any change, and I go to that thing with my CashKey, and I don't have a credit card, and I get a ticket," she said. "And I cannot be the only one."
On the 37 smart meters in downtown Champaign, there's no plug for residents' CashKeys, which are preloaded with money for parking.
"That was the major complaint: 'We can't use our CashKey on these meters,'" Anderson said.
Right now, the smart meters are being borrowed from their manufacturer on a trial basis. City administrators wanted to purchase the 37 meters that are downtown and an extra 41 for a two-block stretch of Sixth Street on campus.
That would have cost $64,000 the first year and about $19,000 annually thereafter to maintain the meters, but administrators thought the cost could have been offset by the increased revenue.
Some council members weren't so sure.
"I don't feel like we're ready to make that investment, and I think we'd be remiss in doing so at this point," council member Paul Faraci said.
Council member Marci Dodds said she would rather wait it out — the smart meter technology is still relatively new — and see what the market has to offer in the future.
"I think it's good to be ahead of the curve, but sometimes you can be a little too far ahead," Dodds said.
Of the eight in attendance on Tuesday night, council member Tom Bruno was the only one who wanted to buy the 78 smart meters. He said the city needs to start adapting to a society where plastic pays for everything.
"It doesn't take a great deal of foresight to see where this is headed," Bruno said.
Hannan said the electronic meters used everywhere else in the city "work just fine." The only problem is that, if drivers are out of coins and do not own CashKeys, they are out of luck.
"I just don't see a pressing need for this yet," Feinen said. "I understand it's easier for people visiting our community. I don't think we're so far into the credit card society that people don't expect it might need change to pay a meter."