Richmond drivers frustrated over broken solar-powered parking machines

Posted at 10:00 PM, Nov 02, 2015
and last updated 2015-11-02 23:29:22-05

RICHMOND, Va. -- The solar-powered parking machines the City of Richmond started using in 2012 are supposed to make it easy for drivers to park, but a CBS 6 investigation found numerous problems with the machines that are frustrating drivers.

“It`s just difficult,” one driver said.

“There`s multiple issues,” another driver said.

CBS 6 reporter Melissa Hipolit and photojournalist Eli Gardiner spent two days walking around talking to people using the parking machines and heard numerous complaints.

“We pressed the buttons, no lights came on,” one customer said.

“It`ll take the money, and the receipt tape won`t come out at all,” another customer said.

“This one doesn`t take coins again, and that one doesn`t work at all,” another frustrated customer said.

In fact, some people we talked to said they just avoid the machines all together.

“I`m not even going to do it. I`m going to go in there and hope I don`t get a ticket,” one man said while laughing.

Parking meter 2

A Freedom of Information Act request submitted to the city to obtain the maintenance logs for the 153 parking machines, revealed more than 3,000 problems with the machines between May and October of 2015.

Some of the most common issues include: no receipt, no paper, low voltage, not on, and not taking bills or coins.

“The system isn’t working,” Jeni Wenrich, who owns a business downtown, said.

The machines are owned, managed, and maintained by a company called SP Plus Municipal Services.

The city pays them nearly $5 million a year to run the machines.

“I`m surprised we`re not on a first name basis at this point. I`ve got their number as a contact in my phone and keep saying can you do something about this,” Wenrich said.

Parking meter

CBS 6 reporter Melissa Hipolit called the number listed on all of the machines to report a broken machine, and waited on hold for nearly two minutes to report the problem.

The person on the other end told her one of their employees would come by and mark all of the cars on the block for the time allowed in that zone, in this particular case it was two hours.

But, some drivers said that doesn’t always happen.

“Sometimes they don`t let them know and you get a ticket,” Jeremy Bragg, who works downtown, said.

We brought the data and the complaints to Steven Bergin, who manages parking customer services for the City of Richmond.

“There was over 3000 issues that were founded between May and October...that sounds like a lot?” Hipolit asked Bergin.

‘”Yes it sounds like a lot, it does sound like a lot,” Bergin replied.  “We want this process to be seamless.”

When asked if he felt like the company that is running the machines is doing a good job after reviewing the maintenance logs,  Bergin said, “I`m going to have to dig further into it. At this point, we`ve been satisfied with the performance, yes.”

Parking meter 4

Bergin said the city hopes to move to a system next April where people can enter their license plate number into the machine so they don’t need a receipt.

Sharon North, a spokesperson for the Department of Public Works said via email that the “paper dispenser draws more energy from the batteries than all the devices, which means, by having stronger batteries you have considerably less problems with all the components in the machine.”

Bergin also said the city is replacing 40 batteries, and working to find an app where people can pay with a smartphone.

But Bergin also said he will be discussing the issues we raised with the company about improving the process.

“It will be discussed, yes,” Bergin said.

After our interview with the city, they dug into the data themselves and North told us that in the six month period we looked at there were 700,000 transactions at the city’s parking machines.

North said that number, when compared to the complaint number, means the parking machines were up and running 99 percent of the time.

CBS 6 reached out to SP Plus Municipal Services for comment, but never heard back.