I’m standing on Union Street in the middle of the bomb cyclone a few weeks ago and I’m trying to figure out how to work a parking meter.

I press the meter button that points leftward, in my VW’s direction and then it happens.

Instead of the meter registering my 20 minutes, up pops that flashing “SEL” message, alternating with an “SPC” message, which unlike the SEL has spaces between S, P and C. 

It’s blinking between the two messages very fast and making me scared. Parking meters always do that to me. Something about getting caught short of quarters when I was a kid.

“What the heck does SEL mean? SEL. Does that mean Select? Select what? As many times as I’ve seen it all these years, I still don’t know. 

And what does SPC mean? Capital ‘S’, capital ‘P’, Capital ‘C.’? What does that mean? It can’t be “Space” because they would not use all caps for “Space,” would they? And what about the “E’s”? Is that “Empty”? It’s a short word, why don’t they just write it?

The next thing I know the meter is flashing “S6PC.” Who knows what that one means?

OK, I confess. I’ve lived in New Bedford for 22 years, been a user of the downtown meters for all of that time, and I still don’t understand how the damn things work.

I know, I know, I can just use an app to pay for the meters.

But I’m old. I only use apps when there’s no other choice. 

I look closely at the meter as I’m getting more and more drenched, and in small print on the lower right side, it says “Pay with an app.” And then underneath that in larger letters “ParkingApp.com”

Would that app be safe? I wonder. Is it secure?

By now the wind is picking up and I’m getting cold. 

Whatever happened to the credit cards they used to let you pay for the meter? I wonder. That didn’t last very long.

Pretty soon I’m out of quarters trying to get the meters to work so I head for the downtown garages that the city’s recent parking study said people don’t want to use. Something about a perception that the Elm Street garage, as well as the other garage adjacent to the Zeiterion Theatre, are not well lit.

The perception is wrong.

The garages are very well lit. Especially the Elm Street Garage, which the city sunk several million bucks into a few years ago on a rehab.

But while these garages are bright enough, they’re still a little creepy. Especially at night if you’re alone. Or even on a rainy day if the garage is largely empty and no one is around, which was the case during my experiment. It’s just the nature of parking garages, I guess. Something about being remote and lonely whatever time of day you’re in them.

I used to use the Elm Street garage every day when I worked at The Standard-Times for many years, and like anything else you’re used to, it was fine. Still, whenever I came out of that building late at night, I held my car keys tightly in my hands, ready to use them as a little weapon if I encountered anyone.

In the winter, the homeless would sometimes sleep in the Elm Street lobby, even after they rehabbed it. The cops didn’t check at night so much and what that garage really needed was an evening-shift parking attendant. Probably not going to happen since there isn’t even one in the daytime anymore.

If you live in Boston, where unlike New Bedford the parking really is impossible, you use the garages no matter how much you hate them. The fact that people won’t use them in New Bedford tells me that street parking is still bearable here.

Meter fees up, garages down

All of this is my long-winded windup to news that the cost of the downtown parking meters has just gone up in New Bedford while the cost of the city garages has just gone down.

The Traffic Commission unanimously approved the increases and decreases back in September. The reduced rates at the garages have been going on for a while, but the meters just started last week.

The meters at the spaces adjacent to most of the shops and eateries will increase by 50 cents to a buck-and-a-quarter per hour. A second zone of meters on the periphery of downtown will increase by 25 cents to a buck an hour.

They’re making it up by decreasing the cost of the garages from $3 an hour to $2. They’re lopping off $6 for the maximum amount for a day in the garage, from $18 to $12.

You can see the idea here. Get the folks off the streets and into the garages. Make it more expensive to use those confusing meters so folks will like them even less.

Downtown merchants tell me some of their employees park just outside the metered zones, but some of them are also feeding the meters that could be used for customers. The parking study, by an outfit called Stantec, found that 60% of downtown employees were parking on the street. The downtown needs the meters. If for nothing else, to keep folks from parking outside these businesses all day long. 

Still, I’m downtown a lot and most days you can find an empty meter somewhere, though you may have to drive around the block a time or two.

The garages are just not an easy sell. The Elm Street Garage is at the bottom of a steep hill and the Zeiterion Garage is hidden away to the edge of the downtown, adjacent to the theater, on the fringe of a low-income neighborhood.

I don’t know. As frustrating as those meters are, I’d still rather use them than the garage.

The merchants, of course, are always concerned about meter increases. You would be too if your business depended on in-and-outs.

The Stantec study recommends that the city work with the owners of on-street private parking lots in the downtown, asking them if they will share their lots with the public at certain off-times. They say it’s worked in other places, but I have my doubts.

What’s the motivation to share for those in control of the lots? There are street lots next to Regency, the Bank of America, the YMCA, the DeMello center, near Olympia Towers and the Pilgrim United Church. Some of the lots have plenty of spaces, even during the day. Would the merchants really open them up to the general public?

Perhaps the city could set an example?  

There’s a city parking lot on Sixth Street across from City Hall that is mostly reserved for the department heads and management staff. Maybe the mayor could ask the city staff to set an example and park in either the Elm Street or Zeiterion garages? Right now, the signs for the managers’ parking spaces are displayed like status-symbol reminders to all those looking for an easy parking spot around City Hall. 

Speaking of the shortage of spaces, the mayor solves his own staff’s lack of parking by letting some folks double-park in his own spots all day. Perhaps not the best example?

Other suggestions from the consultant’s study are that the city construct kiosks for multiple parking spaces in the downtown. Sounds like a nightmare for the meter folks to keep track of.

Those kiosks are already used in the garages and they carry an ominous sign that says “CASH PAYMENTS MUST BE MADE WITH EXACT CHANGE” in capital letters. Certainly enough to scare off meter-phobics like myself. 

Hasn’t anyone invented a meter with an easy way to read credit cards like they have at gasoline pumps? The parking study says the meter technology didn’t work the last time they tried to use the cards.

Powerful Traffic Commission

The traffic commission includes two city councilors — Brian Gomes and Brad Markey — among its nine members, and all the other ones are appointed by the mayor or designated by individual city departments, like police and public infrastructure. The state and city give the commission the power to raise the rates on their own. That’s awfully convenient for both the mayor and the rest of the city councilors.

Michael Lawrence, a spokesman for the mayor, said Mitchell supports the recommendations of the traffic commission and its work commissioning the study. But it sounds like the administration is a little more involved than that.

Councilor Markey said he was following the recommendation of the administration and that Christina Connelly, the city’s chief operating officer, met with the commission members after the study was completed in 2019. He said commission members were told that parking is more expensive in other cities, and the garage is underused. Lawrence said Connelly was just going over the report with them; the mayor’s office did not provide Connelly to The Light after its request for an interview.

Councilor Gomes, who works as a security officer in one of the downtown parking lots, did not respond to The Light’s request for comment.

Laurie Alfonso, the commission’s executive secretary, is the one who proposed the meter increases. If you believe that it’s Alfonso and not Mayor Mitchell who’s making a decision to raise the price of downtown parking meters, I have a bridge across the Acushnet to sell you.

Alfonso says she proposed the increases because that’s what the traffic study recommended. But there are other things the study recommended — such as the joint use of the private parking lots — that haven’t been recommended. 

The answer to why the city raised them now doesn’t entirely make sense. The study was completed before the pandemic, but the commission initially rejected it on a 4-1 vote with only five members present, less than a quorum. 

The city lost a significant amount of parking revenue during the pandemic. First, in order to help downtown businesses, enforcement at the meters was completely stopped for a time; later, business has been slow to return to pre-pandemic levels. 

According to the city’s FY 2022 budget, the parking enterprise fund lost more than $54,000 in meter revenue in 2020 and projects it will lose almost $135,000 this year. But the city is set to receive tens of millions in American Rescue Plan Act money that can be used to address revenue shortfalls, so it’s hard to attribute the meter rate increases to the shortfall and not the effort to push the garages.

Whatever the reasons for the increases, they are here.

So when you go downtown, it’s only 12 minutes for that quarter now in the center district where most of the shops are located. And bring extra quarters if you’re like me and can’t figure out what SEL and SPC mean. Which a downtown restaurateur finally told me means “Select Space,” while looking at me, incredulous that I had never figured that out. Fair enough, but I doubt I’m alone. 

Maybe we should all just get out our phones and download the app.

And resign ourselves to the fact the downtown is not always so much an in-and-out place. But the downtown shops and restaurants are so good we don’t mind the inconvenience.

Contact Jack Spillane at jspillane@newbedfordlight.org.

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