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Confusing overnight parking meters leave drivers frustrated

Public Works has added stickers to meters in an attempt to clear up confusion.
anthony camera

I was killing at karaoke. That is, I was killing everyone at Star Bar softly with Vanilla Ice's 1990 mega-hit "Ice Ice Baby." I'd memorized the lyrics when I was eight, even though I had no idea what "flow like a harpoon, daily and nightly" meant.

Truth be told, my killing wasn't so much soft as it was loud and shout-y. When the karaoke began that warm June evening, I'd already been guzzling cold cans of Avery Brewing's White Rascal, which was completely unnecessary, because despite my inability to carry a tune, I will do karaoke stone-cold sober. Luckily for my audience that night, "Ice Ice Baby" requires no actual singing, but it does force you to rap the lines "Quick to the point, to the point, no fakin'/Cookin' MCs like a pound of bacon."

The crowd was eating it up and I was on a roll, bobbing my head like a badass between verses. When I finished, there was a rainstorm of high-fives from the people I'd come with, all of whom are apparently fans of grown-ass women singing novelty rap songs. Or maybe they were just being polite — it was hard to tell.

A couple hours and at least one more song later, I paid my tab and called my fiancé (whom, incidentally, I had wooed two years earlier, on our first date, with a karaoke rendition of '90s R&B trio Bel Biv Devoe's "Poison"). Owing to my mass consumption of White Rascals and his good-hearted nature, he offered to meet me at the bar and drive my car home.

When I finally pushed through the throngs of adoring fans and out onto the Larimer Street sidewalk, I was greeted by a horrific sight. Wedged in the crack between the doors of my car, which I'd parked three hours earlier at a metered spot in front of the bar, was a bright-yellow envelope. I'd gotten an effing parking ticket.

But how was that possible? I'd paid the meter when I parked at 8:30 p.m. It was one of the city's newfangled Smart Meters, the kind with the digital display and the slot for your credit card. I'd swiped my Visa and then pushed the "plus" key to add as much time as possible. A sticker on the meter said payment was required until 10 p.m. and, sure enough, the meter would only accept an hour and a half's worth of money. Satisfied that I'd done my civic duty, I headed into the bar to do my duty to the gods of rock and roll.

My ticket, however, said I was a scofflaw. "Flashing Expired" was the reason listed. The time on the ticket was 10:17 p.m., the fine $25.

I'd heard that the city had recently implemented overnight parking at meters downtown, but I was sure I'd read the sticker correctly.

I hadn't — and it turns out I wasn't the only person confused. In May, June, July and August, the months for which the most complete data is available, parking enforcement issued a total of 28,700 tickets between 10 p.m. and 8 a.m. to people caught breaking the brand-new rules, which most definitely require payment after 10 p.m.

*****

For years, meter parking downtown worked like this: Payment was required from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. From 10 p.m. until 2 a.m., parking was free. But you had to move your car off the street after that because parking was prohibited from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m., which is when the street sweepers did their dirty work. Disobey, and you were gifted with a ticket.

Starting in 2005, the city began getting more and more requests for overnight parking, says Matt Wager, director of operations with the city's Department of Public Works. The pleas came from three different groups: residents who were quickly filling lower downtown's hip housing and wanted their overnight guests to be able to park on the street; downtown athletic clubs and breakfast restaurants whose pre-6 a.m. patrons were faced with few parking options; and late-night party animals — or, as Wager puts it, "people taking advantage of the amenities downtown who would call and say, 'I've had too much to drink and you're making me drive my car.'"

But back then, the city couldn't do much about it. Denver's meters were old and ill-equipped to make major changes. "We had, through the years, lost the ability to program them as accurately as we wanted," Wager says.

So Public Works surveyed the parking stock, identifying "hot spots" and meeting with interested parties to figure out what was needed in different parts of the city. The results showed that Denver didn't need more parking spots, says Cindy Patton, senior city planner with Public Works. Rather, it needed to better use the space it already had and to "manage parking as an asset" — one that could boost economic development downtown.

 

With the debut of Smart Meters in 2009, that got a whole lot easier. The new meters are highly programmable and capable of charging different amounts of money at different times, turning on and off on specified days and scrolling customizable (albeit dimly lit) messages on their LED screens. "That opened the door for us," Wager says.

It took another year for Public Works to craft a detailed plan outlining where and when overnight parking would be available and how it would be enforced. Last October, the department presented that plan to the City Council's Land Use, Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. It called for allowing overnight parking between 10 p.m. and 8 a.m. in the area bounded by Broadway/Lincoln, Speer Boulevard, I-25 and Colfax Avenue.

From 10 p.m. until 2 a.m., parking would cost $1 an hour. From 2 a.m. until 6 a.m., it would cost 50 cents, and it would be free between 6 a.m. and 8 a.m. So the total cost to park overnight would be $6. However, before 10 p.m., the city's so-called hundred-foot rule would still be in effect. Downtown, the rule requires people who park before 10 p.m. to move their cars one hundred feet after two hours in an attempt to ensure "turnover" at meters so people don't hog the good spots. Even if a person parked at 9:30 p.m., they'd be required to move their car within two hours.

As for street sweeping, Public Works figured out a schedule in which it could sweep one side of the street on Mondays and Wednesdays and the other side on Tuesdays and Thursdays, keeping at least one half of the street open for overnight parking at all times. There is no sweeping on the weekends.

City council members had few questions. The final vote, on December 20, 2010, was unanimous. To allow cars to park overnight for up to ten hours, the council deleted a provision from a city ordinance that prohibited parking in one spot for more than five.

Three months later, on March 21, then-mayor Bill Vidal, along with other city dignitaries and Public Works officials, gathered to announce that overnight parking would start that day with the replacement of street parking signs and meter stickers at 17th and Wynkoop streets. Over the next few months, 2,977 of the city's more than 5,000 parking meters were given a makeover; the cost to implement the overnight program was $65,000. To ease the transition, Public Works waited two weeks after each round of replacements to start enforcing the overnight rules.

Still, for some parkers, especially those "taking advantage of the amenities downtown" on a Friday or Saturday night, the makeover proved baffling.

*****

When a Denver resident receives a parking ticket he thinks is bogus or unfair, he can visit the Denver County Court Parking Magistrate's Office, located through the metal detector and past the indoor Subway restaurant in the Wellington E. Webb Municipal Office Building. There he takes a number from a bulbous red ticket dispenser of the variety usually found at deli counters and has a seat to wait for the next available magistrate.

The five magistrates, city employees blessed with the magical power to reduce or dismiss parking tickets at their discretion, sit behind high desks in tiny hearing rooms as citizens make their case. On any given day, they hear a litany of complaints and excuses ranging from "A tree branch was blocking the No Parking sign" to "I had my up-to-date license-plate tags; I just forgot to put them on." Increasingly, people come equipped with cell-phone photos of broken meters or confusing signage. Occasionally, someone starts shouting. But for the most part, people are nice. Some go so far as to call the magistrates "Your Honor," even though they aren't really judges.

Starting in April, the magistrates began seeing people perplexed about the new overnight parking rules. "It was more about people coming in here who were not familiar with it," says office supervisor Roberta Munoz. "They didn't know it had changed."

The number of people disputing tickets rose after overnight parking went into effect. According to Munoz, 3,517 people visited a magistrate in March, the month the city began changing the meters. In May, the number jumped to 3,927. In June, it increased even more, to 4,320. July saw a dip to 3,683, which Munoz attributes to vacations, holidays and furlough days. In August, the number was back up to 4,293.

But she cautions that it's impossible to know whether the increases are due to overnight parking. The office doesn't track the types of tickets people dispute, just the overall number of visits. Plus, she says, her office has seen steady increases for years, a trend that could be attributed to the lagging economy. In 2008, 28,112 people disputed a ticket. In 2009, the number spiked to 34,256, and in 2010, it rose again, to 40,129.

 

In fact, Munoz believes that the number of people disputing overnight parking tickets has dropped off in the past month as more people become aware of the new rules. "We educate people about the change," she says.

On a recent weekday, that seemed to be the case. Of the hundred or so people who came through the office in a span of four hours, only two were there about overnight parking. Tyler Wyckoff, 27, showed up around 12:30 p.m., clutching two yellow ticket envelopes. "I got a couple of violations last week," he told the magistrate, the first at 12:33 a.m. at a meter near the Ginn Mill, around Larimer and 20th streets.

He said he'd paid the meter until 10 p.m., after which he thought parking was free — an assumption the magistrates say is common. "That's what it says on the meter," Wyckoff said. "It says 8 a.m. to 10 p.m."

The magistrate pulled out a much-used diagram of a parking meter, complete with the stickers that attempt to explain the overnight parking rates (though they are hard to see in the dark), including a new one that Public Works added in August to help clear up the confusion.

Actually, the magistrate said, the big sticker on the meter says two-hour parking is allowed between 8 a.m. and 10 p.m. It also says "Overnight Parking Allowed," he explained, "but that doesn't mean it's free." He pointed to the sticker that was added in August, which is smaller than the one that says "Overnight Parking Allowed" and explains that parking costs $1 an hour until 2 a.m. and then 50 cents an hour after that.

"I see that," Wyckoff said. "That night, I didn't see that aspect of it."

The magistrate cut Wyckoff a break. In all, he owed $75 in fines: $25 for the expired meter and $50 for parking on the street-sweeping side of the street. The magistrate knocked his total down to $50. "Fair enough," Wyckoff said.

"Tomorrow's my birthday," he added, "so thanks for the early birthday gift."

As he made his way to the cashier's window, Wyckoff, a recent University of Denver graduate, opined about the circumstances that caused him to be out fifty bucks. "The big print stands out," he said, referring to the meter stickers. But "you're not going to stand on the sidewalk reading the fine print when you're trying to go get a beer."

*****

While Public Works officials aren't shy about acknowledging that the program has caused confusion, they say that so far, the overnight parking program has been a success. More than 115,000 hours were purchased between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. from May 1 through September 30, they report. From 2 a.m. to 6 a.m., when parking was previously prohibited, 10,433 hours were purchased, bringing the grand total to more than 125,000 hours.

"That's a higher number than we were anticipating," says Wager. "It justifies the work that went into the program, and it tells us that the stakeholder groups that were asking for it really did have a need for that choice."

To help enforce the rules, Public Works started a new overnight parking-enforcement shift in July. Now, between the hours of 11:30 p.m. and 10 a.m., four to five parking-enforcement agents (don't call them meter maids!) cruise the streets, making sure the meters are fed. According to Tina Scardina, the department's right-of-way enforcement manager, they've issued an average of 7,000 tickets per month.

And that means more revenue for the city. The 28,700 tickets issued between the hours of 10 p.m. and 8 a.m. in May, June, July and August brought in $1,064,000, says Public Works spokeswoman Christine Downs. She's quick to point out, however, that not all of that money is profit. The overnight parking program has several costs, she says, including the extra parking-enforcement shift.

Still, the city wants more people to pay their meters — and not just for money-hungry reasons. "We would prefer to have their behavior modified with education, with really understanding why we're doing this," Scardina says, "whether it's looking at stickers and signs or reading the screens on the meter or seeing one of our (parking enforcement) Jeeps going around with the lights on.

"This time next year, I think we're going to see that those numbers of citations are going to drop," she adds. "It's just too early to tell."

Groups such as the Downtown Denver Partnership and LoDo District Inc. say they — and their members — are thrilled to finally have meter parking overnight. When it was proposed, "a lot of businesses and residents saw it as a great amenity," says Aylene McCallum, transportation and research manager for the DDP. "But the devil is always in the details." Some of those details continue to cause headaches, including hundred-foot rule.

 

The way the foot traffic comes in to the hospitality venues, patrons come in at 8 p.m. and stay for two hours and then have to move their cars. It's really inconvenient for them," says Holly Barrett, executive director of LoDo District Inc. "A lot of people have been getting tickets and complaining about that."

Public Works is keeping a close eye on the program and plans to do an in-depth analysis in early 2012, once it's been fully operational for six months. In the meantime, the department is continuing its efforts to clear up any meter misunderstandings.

In August, it added stickers explaining the prices. Now officials are distributing posters to downtown businesses and housing complexes called "Did you Feed Me? Top 3 Ticket-Free Tips." The tips include this one: "Always read the overhead signs and meter stickers for payment information and parking restrictions."

If you don't, you could end up like me.

*****

A few weeks after my spectacular karaoke performance and my less-than-spectacular discovery of a parking ticket in the crack of my car door, I marched down to the office of the parking magistrate, determined to give the city a piece of my mind.

I took a tiny numbered ticket from the red dispenser and then took a seat. When my number was called, I followed a path worn in the beige-and-blue carpet from the waiting area to one of the hearing rooms, where a magistrate in a shirt and tie peered down at me. I decided to leave out the details of my karaoke glory and cut to the chase.

I think the meter was broken, I said. It wouldn't accept money past 10 p.m.

I didn't explain that I hadn't tried to feed it past 10 p.m. Because of the two-hour time restriction, I should have returned two hours later, moved my car the requisite one hundred feet and paid for overnight parking. At the time, I didn't realize my mistake.

The magistrate, however, took my word for it. If the meter truly wouldn't accept any money, he said, it may have indeed been broken. He promised to send someone out to investigate and had me fill out a form that asked for my license plate number, ticket number and address. In the section labeled "Citizen's Statement," I wrote my side of the story. He explained that I would receive a decision in the mail within thirty days.

Thirty days came and went with no response. After another thirty days, I returned to the magistrate to investigate. The woman at the counter looked up my ticket in the system. "Hmmm," she said, and tapped at her keyboard. She couldn't explain what had happened with my ticket or why I hadn't received a decision. As such, she decided to dismiss it. After a few more taps, she reduced the fine to zero.

Victory! I shouted in my head. "Thank you," I said out loud.

But my feeling of triumph over the system, my conquest of The Man, lasted only a few sweet seconds, thanks to more tapping of the woman's keyboard. "It looks like you have another ticket," she said. I did, in fact. And this time, I knew I was guilty. A few days earlier, I had returned to Star Bar, unable to resist the taste of canned beer, the feel of sticky karaoke songbooks and the sound of dozens of people cheering.

As luck would have it, I snagged another prime parking spot in front of the bar. It was 8 p.m., which I now knew meant that the two-hour parking restriction was still in effect. I would have to pay for two hours, return to my car, move it one hundred feet and then pay a different meter $6 to park overnight. As I swiped my credit card, I thought, "Remember to come back at 10 and MOVE YOUR CAR AND PAY THE METER!" But several White Rascals and a performance of Salt-N-Pepa's "Shoop" later, that reminder turned into "Remember to stay here and SING QUEEN'S 'FAT BOTTOMED GIRLS'!"

I took a cab home that night. When I returned at 7:30 a.m. the next morning to pick up my car, I was greeted by another yellow envelope.

Later that day, I told my tale of woe to one of my co-workers, who had witnessed (and participated in!) my karaoke splendor. "You know that Star Bar has a parking lot, right?" he said.

No, I answered. I did not know that.


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