When Luke Langbehn reported a broken meter – yet again – to the Missoula Parking Commission, he wasn’t thrilled with the solution he witnessed.
“He (an employee) dumped the quarters in his pocket and turned the dial,” Langbehn said.
Langbehn, who works downtown and often parks on Main Street, wanted to watch the repair because he’d called before, and the parking meters continue to consistently run fast. In fact, when he and one of his co-workers have complained about the fast meters, Langbehn said the parking attendants admit it’s a problem – and waive tickets.
Last year, parking commission director Anne Guest said the agency wanted to replace all the mechanical meters in 2013, but the deadline has come and gone.
On Tuesday, Guest said an updated system was delayed because the commission’s priority was to open the Park Place garage on Front Street, and she has been waiting for meter technology to reach a point that’s cost effective for Missoula.
“I think we’ve arrived at a time now that it makes perfect sense to get rid of the old ones and move right into the latest technology,” Guest said.
The parking commission operates 1,100 meters, and agency representatives have admitted the equipment is “antiquated.” The commission has hired a consultant to steer the process of bringing a new system to Missoula, and Guest plans to implement it by the end of 2014, “hopefully” by this summer.
In the meantime, the old clunkers will remain in operation. As far as Langbehn is concerned, that means people plugging broken meters downtown are getting taken for a ride if they don’t know they can fight the citations, which run from free for a first offense to $20 for a fifth violation.
“People are getting horsed out of money, and they’re doing the honest thing and paying $2,” Langbehn said.
Some downtown workers lease spaces to avoid the problem, but Langbehn said his job means he’s often loading up his car with materials from work and driving out to construction sites. So he needs to have his vehicle close to his office.
A few years ago, the staff of 12 to 15 employees considered moving to Reserve Street, and parking was a consideration. Eric Weckenbrock, who works at the same downtown business, said he argued to stay downtown, but he has his own method of avoiding inconsistent meters and keeping tickets at bay.
“I try to ride my bike most days so I don’t have to deal with it,” said Weckenbrock, who lives roughly 3 1/2 miles away.
When he does bring his car to work, he plugs the meter and sets a 10-minute warning on his iPhone stopwatch. Some 75 percent of the time, he said, the meter will already be expired when the warning rings, and if he’s stuck on a conference call and gets a ticket anyway, it shows him proof of the problem.
“Usually, the ticket is time stamped before my 10-minute warning,” Weckenbrock said.
Reports of malfunctions aren’t uncommon. However, the meters brought in $450,403 in 2013, and Guest said the commission will continue to use them until a new system is in place because buying replacements would be too costly and “bagging” the meters would mean a “free-for-all.”
“You need to have some mechanism to control the parking, and you need some way in which to collect revenue for that parking space,” Guest said.
One of the biggest problems, she said, is that the meters are “very, very subjective to the weather.” A meter calibrated one afternoon may be off in the morning if a storm passed through Missoula that night.
“The cold weather causes the metal pieces to tighten up, and therefore, they run faster. That’s the biggest issue. And we can’t control that,” she said.