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Parking in Stamford will soon be ‘purely electronic’

Originally published in the Stamford Advocate.

The city is on the path to paperless parking.

The Board of Representatives has approved a contract with a North Carolina company, Passport Labs, to upgrade the electronic management of parking tickets and permits.

It will eliminate the need for cash, snail-mail payments, and visits to the government center to pick up beach and neighborhood parking passes.

Well, maybe not the beach part quite yet. The city still will issue paper permits next summer to help park police make the transition, said Rep. Steven Kolenberg, R-16, chairman of the board’s Transportation Committee.

“Park police want to be able to verify on the spot that someone has a beach pass, and paper permits make it obvious,” Kolenberg said. “They will continue for a while but then the paper will be phased out and everything will go purely electronic.”

Park police will have time to get used to checking license-plate numbers on a handheld electronic device, Transportation Bureau Chief Jim Travers said.

“Initially we were going to give them just the handhelds but at the last minute I said we’ll do a dual system of that, plus hang tags, to give them a period to see how it works,” Travers said.

Residents may welcome the changes.

They will be able to buy beach parking permits online – no more waiting in the Government Center to pick up a paper sticker. They can also buy a pass at kiosks that will be set up at the beaches.

They also will be able to go online to buy Residential Permit Parking passes, which limit on-street parking in congested neighborhoods.

For enforcement officers, Passport Labs will update the handheld devices and software used to identify vehicles that are parked illegally, Travers said.

The city sought a new contract because its $150,000-a-year agreement with Municipal Citation Solutions is expiring. The Passport Labs contract costs more, $220,000, but the benefits outweigh the added cost, Travers said.

“I am frugal with taxpayer dollars. I think you spend money only if you add value,” he said.

The handheld devices that officers use now frequently fail, the system goes down, and the technology is outdated, he said. That reduces the number of times enforcement officers can check garages, lots, meters and parking zones, he said.

It’s not a good system for Stamford, Travers said.

The 10 traffic officers in his department enforce parking regulations in three downtown garages and five lots, plus about 600 on-street meters. They enforce 42 Residential Parking Permit zones; one- and two-hour time limit zones; an ordinance that allows on-street parking for no more than five consecutive days; and permit parking at half a dozen beach parks.

Besides the handheld devices, the officers in his department share three automatic license plate readers, which cost $40,000 apiece, Travers said. Police officers and park police will use only handheld devices, he said.

The reason is that the enforcement officers in his department issue most of the parking tickets that are written each year, Travers said. Police and park police issue one-quarter of 1 percent of parking tickets, he said.

According to the city’s request for proposals to contractors, 100,000 tickets are issued annually.

The automatic reader is, by far, a traffic officer’s most efficient tool, Travers said. It is a camera attached to the parking enforcement vehicle that checks license plates without the officer having to do anything.

The handheld device works in two ways.

“The officer can enter in the plate number, or the officer can photograph the license plate using a camera in the handheld and the device reads it from that,” Travers said. “The difference is you have to do it car by car with the handheld.”

Both devices save traffic enforcement officers lots of time.

“They don’t have to walk around looking at stickers or tags to see if cars are parked illegally,” he said. “They can check a whole garage or lot in minutes. If we were to continue with the system we have now, I would have to hire more people because we are not in the parks enough. The new system will allow my people to check the parks more often and free up the park police to handle the quality-of-life issues the Board of Representatives wants them to handle in the parks.”

Besides improving enforcement, Passport Labs will be responsible for duties that include processing tickets, notifying violators about late fees, collecting delinquent fines, communicating with the contractor that boots vehicles, checking with the state Department of Motor Vehicles for registration suspensions and managing ticket appeals.

The city lately has averaged 9,000 appeals a year, according to the request for proposals. It cites recent data showing that 82 percent of the tickets written are paid. It says 40 percent of tickets were issued to Stamford residents, 45 percent to those who live elsewhere in Connecticut and 15 percent to out-of-state residents.

Representatives approved the Passport Labs contract Tuesday, and Mayor David Martin has 10 days from then to sign it. Once he does, the new system will be rolled out in phases, starting with ticket processing later this year, Travers said. The rest will begin next year.

Kolenberg said the contract is an improvement.

“I think it’s always a good thing to update technology,” Kolenberg said. “There will be growing pains, but if we can work through them, I think it will ultimately benefit the city.”