UI parking meters

A new pay station for metered parking spots is shown Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2019, in the parking lot just west of the Activities and Recreation Center at First Street and Peabody Drive on the University of Illinois campus in Champaign.

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The humble parking meter may be on the way out at the University of Illinois.

The 2,500 meters found in parking lots and streets across campus use 1990s technology that is no longer supported by the company that made them, according to Martin Paulins, director of campus parking.

Faced with pricey replacement costs, the campus has decided to pilot new payment methods at two public parking areas — a busy lot with 250 meters at First Street and Peabody Drive in Champaign, just west of the Activities and Recreation Center and north of Memorial Stadium; and about 58 meters on the west side of the North Campus Parking Deck on University Avenue in Urbana.

Drivers there can either pay with the Mobile Meter parking app that’s already used by the UI and the cities of Champaign and Urbana, or at new pay stations that accept coins or credit cards, Paulins said.

The pay stations were installed last week, and bags were placed on most of the old meters explaining the change. Depending how the pilot project goes, more could follow around campus.

Paulins said technology was the driving factor in the switch.

The Duncan parking company, now known as CivicSmart, no longer supports the 20-ish-year-old technology in the meters, which were installed in the north parking garage only 15 years ago.

“There’s no hardware support at all for them anymore,” Paulins said.

The company no longer makes the parts, and they’re run by an internal battery that needs to be replaced, he said.

A new “smart meter” costs from $400 to $1,000, he said, so upgrading all 250 meters at the First and Peabody lot would cost at least $100,000, he said. The solar-powered pay stations cost about $7,000 each, or $14,000 for the two at that lot, he said.

Paulins said the new system is also more efficient.

Parking enforcement officers have to check the old meters by hand to see if the “violation” light is blinking and then enter a license plate in a computer to find out whether the owner has paid.

“Now, all that’s tied into one big data cloud,” he said.

Meter-checkers can drive through a parking lot and use a “license plate recognition” camera affixed to their vehicle that checks to see if the owner has paid via app or pay station.

“They can drive the lot in a matter of minutes rather than hours,” he said.

“Everything else we have is centralized except the old meters that are stand-alone,” he said.

(In case you’re wondering: the UI Parking Department can’t check remotely whether you’ve paid for parking; it still has to be done on-site, Paulins said.)

Paulins said the Parking Department wanted to pilot the new system to get feedback and see whether drivers like them. So far he hasn’t heard of any complaints.

Some drivers parking near the ARC last week grumbled about the surcharge on the phone app or the lines that sometimes form at the pay stations, which could get worse once school starts.

That mightj be a concern, said UI senior Madison Kaufman, who works at the Activities and Recreation Center. But she said most students use the app already because it’s so convenient.

“You know students, we’re always late, we can type in the information while we’re running to class,” she said.

And the new system is easier than in some parts of campus where drivers have to type in the parking space number, Kaufman said.

Paulins said data from the pilot project so far shows that 87 percent of drivers are using the mobile app rather than the pay station.

For those who don’t want to use an app, or dislike Mobile Meter’s transaction fees, Paulins noted that the pay stations accept coins or credit with no extra fees.

And if lines become a problem, he said, more pay stations can be added.

The Parking Department left two rows of working meters in the lot at First and Peabody as part of the “slow phase-in to get people familiar with the pay stations,” he said. They will be removed over the next few weeks.

The campus is already scouting where the next batch of pay stations might go, though no decisions will be made until the pilot project is assessed, he said.

“We would do it strategically, on the high-end usage lots first, and go from there,” Paulins said. “We have to do something. The only thing we can do right now is cannibalize parts, which isn’t very efficient.”

Paulins acknowledged that Mobile Meter has had some “network issues” that interfere with the payment system, leaving motorists in a parking limbo. The UI Parking Department isn’t always notified right away, either, he said.

“We first learn about it when our phones start lighting up” from unhappy drivers, he said. “It can be a half-hour later that we’ll get a notification that there’s a problem.”

Drivers who wind up getting a parking ticket because of those outages can take it to the UI Parking Department at 1201 W. University Ave., U, for review, he said.


Julie Wurth is a reporter covering the University of Illinois at The News-Gazette. Her email is jwurth@news-gazette.com, and you can follow her on Twitter (@jawurth).