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City to consider using gated, pay-as-you-leave system for new downtown parking garage

It is a popular game with a certain someone in my household: Where is the downtown parking meter patrol officer?

I suspect you know how the game is played: Park in one of the many metered parking spaces in downtown or the free two-hour lots, and then start calculating when the parking control officer will next be by to check the area. Perhaps you figure you don’t need to pay the meter this time, or maybe you can stay a bit longer than the two-hour time limit.

Oh, it is quite the game with some. (Note to parking control officers: If a certain someone from my household tries to give you a hug, that’s her way of trying to plant a GPS tracking device on you.)

Well, the rules of the game may change dramatically when the city opens its new multi-level parking garage in the 700 block of Vermont Street, next to the expanded public library.

City Manager David Corliss last night told commissioners he’s seriously considering recommending that automated gates be installed as part of the new garage. Motorists would receive a ticket as they enter the facility, and then they would put the ticket in a machine and pay to leave the garage.

Kansas University has such systems on some of their garages and they’re quite common elsewhere. But the system hasn’t made it to downtown Lawrence. Instead, the city employs a crew of people who constantly walk around downtown, checking meters, chalking tires and writing tickets.

Apparently, Corliss is rethinking that strategy, at least for the new garage.

“One of my mantras is to use automation to save on labor costs,” Corliss said.

No final decision on the system has been made, but it is clear that it is a real possibility. A decision may need to be made sooner than you think.

Corliss said he believes there is an outside chance that a portion of the parking garage may be open to the public by late July. In fact, he’s challenging construction crews to have at least part of the facility open by Downtown Lawrence’s Sidewalk Sale day July 18. No promises on that, he said, but it is a goal. He hopes to have the entire garage open by the end of August, but that also is dependent on weather factors and such.

It will be interesting to see how the public responds to the idea of a new parking enforcement system. The gated, pay-as-you-leave approach would allow for more flexibility. For example, commissioners could say that two-hour parking in the garage is free, and then you pay a certain amount for each fifteen minutes thereafter. Such a system would allow any parking space in the garage to be used for two-hour free parking. In the city’s other garages, that’s not the case. The city marks a certain number of them as free two-hours spaces, while the others are marked as spaces that require you to insert your money into a pay box.

What will get really interesting is to see how far the city carries out this idea. Just to be clear, Corliss didn’t mention anything about a gate system for anything other than this new garage. But clearly, if the idea is a success, the city may want to try it with other downtown locations. There are two other parking garages in downtown, and the city has many surface parking lots where the gate system could be installed as a method of charging people who overstay the two-hour time limit.

How much would the city save in labor costs and in time spent by Municipal Court processing the thousands of parking tickets that are written in downtown Lawrence? I don’t know. But it would seem unlikely that the need for parking enforcement officers would disappear altogether. The meters on Massachusetts Street would still need to be patrolled. But the officers could focus on that area more intensely, giving motorists more of an incentive to use those premium spots as the short-terms spaces they are meant to be.

It will be interesting to watch. I know a certain someone in my house will be watching, and, of course, scheming.

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