CHAMPAIGN — Drivers could soon be using their smartphones to pay for parking after city council members Tuesday night said they'd like to bring in an alternative way to feed the meter.
City officials will start looking for providers who offer the service after the council cast its 8-0 straw poll. The pay-by-cellphone service would look a lot like the one already available at 1,500 University of Illinois meters, said Champaign public works spokesman Kris Koester.
The service allows drivers to connect their credit card to a free app on their cellphones, which they can then use to pay for meters. After an initial registration, Koester said the user has to enter only basic meter information into the app to pay — a process that should take about half a minute.
Most providers send a text message to drivers when their meter is about to run out. They can feed the meter again automatically if there's no time restriction in that area.
It'll also provide an important, coinless way to pay meters when the city's CashKeys become obsolete. Koester said the company that manufactures those CashKeys has informed the city that they plan to stop doing so, and they may go away within the next five years.
City council members considered a different coinless payment method when they tested a few dozen "smart meters" in downtown Champaign in 2012. The meters accepted credit card swipes in addition to coins, but they also presented the city with a $64,000 upfront installation cost and about $19,000 in annual maintenance costs.
That was a bit too high for council members in 2012. The pay-by-cell service, however, presents almost no upfront cost — although it's likely that a transaction fee of a quarter or 35 cents would be charged to drivers.
Mayor Don Gerard said the feature would solve a lot of problems for people who, say, might not want to step out in the middle of dinner to recharge the parking meter.
"I think it's a fantastic solution," Gerard said. "It's not for everybody, obviously, but for a multitude of the folks that come downtown and patronize the businesses, I think it will be a fantastic amenity."
Council member Will Kyles said it will be a good option for people who just do not carry coins around with them as electronic transactions become more ubiquitous.
"I think it actually will increase compliance," Kyles said. "I think one of the main things is that people don't drive around with quarters."
While the pay-by-cell service in Champaign would mimic the method in use on the UI campus, it would not necessarily be exactly the same. City officials will have to consider a number of different providers, even if they tailor a request to better suit the provider operating on campus.
"It would be really problematic, I would think, if we had a different system than the only other active system in our geographic area," said council member Tom Bruno.
Tuesday night's discussion on the pay-by-cell service came immediately after city council members voted in a 7-1 straw poll to adjust the city's parking fine schedule. Officials soon will start giving warnings on the first time drivers let their meters expire, but the fines will start escalating with subsequent violations.
A second parking ticket in a rolling 365-day period would cost you $15. Your third and fourth would run you $25 each, and a fifth ticket would cost you $35. It would be the first change to parking fines since 2007. Right now, expired meter violations are $10 across the board.
Meyer Drapery owner David Meyer said he worries the new fine structure will alienate downtown Champaign's best customers.
"The core people that really patronize downtown Champaign, there's a good chance they're going to get two or more violations," Meyer said.
Council member Marci Dodds said it's important to remember, however, that parking fees and fines are not to punish people; they are instead to encourage turnover and help everyone find an open space.
And the warning for a first offense, she said, is only fair to people from out of town who don't know the rules.
"It's good to say, 'All right, welcome to town. Yeah, we know you don't live here, here's your first one free,'" Dodds said.
City officials will also impose a uniform $30 fine for a number of prohibited parking practices: parking over lines, against traffic or overnight in prohibited areas. Right now, those illegal parking practices cost drivers $10 or $20.
The parking meter fine structure itself is expected to be "revenue neutral," but the tickets for illegally parked cars and new late fees are expected to generate about $157,000 annually for the city.
Council member Karen Foster was the only "no" vote on the new fine schedule.
"I like the warning ticket idea. I don't mind that part, and I don't mind the late payment fees, that's OK," Foster said. "And I think the $30 for prohibited parking, I don't think that's too much. But I do feel like the plan we already have in place, we're generating revenue already."