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On the west end of M Street in Georgetown, a battle for the future of street parking in D.C. is silently being waged. In two places—the south side of the 3300 block and the north side of the 3400 block—the regular rows of curbside meters have been removed from their posts and replaced with a single, central parking-control machine.
The machines are of two types, installed by two different companies. Both were put in place Nov. 15 for competing trial runs. After the test period, tentatively scheduled to conclude Jan. 15, the District Department of Transportation will consider choosing one of the models to replace meters in areas such as downtown, where parking is hard to come by, says department spokesperson Bill Rice. Rice adds that the details of any contract will have to be worked out with ACS, the company that collects money from and maintains the current meter system.
District residents are invited to comment on the new technology, the department says. Unfortunately, they’re also subject to tickets if they run afoul of the unfamiliar machines.
On the 3300 block, outside a Hollis & Knight furniture store, stands the contestant from SchlumbergerSema, a French manufacturer. It’s a 6-foot-tall dark-green box, which, from a distance, resembles a pay phone or an emergency call box. On top, like a hat, sits a solar panel.
Instead of keeping track of individual spaces, the SchlumbergerSema dispenses receipts covering the whole block. When you park on the block, you must walk to the box and put in money. In return, you get a slip saying how much time you’ve paid for, which you carry back to your car and display on the dashboard.
Saturday afternoon, nine of 17 drivers parked along the 3300 block have put SchlumbergerSema receipts under their windshields. One M Street shopkeeper, who asked to remain anonymous, gives the arrangement, with the extra walking it requires, a hearty thumbs-down. “If you want more time, you have to keep going back to your car and putting in receipts,” he says.
Assuming, that is, that the receipts give the correct time. Rod King, a sales manager at the Jennifer Leather store on the block, started using the SchlumbergerSema when it was first installed. “I kept putting money in the machine, and it kept expiring,” he says. “I looked at my watch and I saw it was an hour and a half off.” When King complained, he says, a technician came and adjusted the time.
SchlumbergerSema’s competition, the Australian-made Reino, sits in front of an empty storefront in the 3400 block, between the Georgetown Market and Revolution Cycles. It looks more like an ordinary meter, only wider, but it keeps track of seven spaces at once.
The Reino features a digital display and a keypad with a number for each space—or “bay,” as they’re called. When you punch in a bay number, the display shows how much time the car in that space has left. On the back of the meter, facing the street, red dots by the meter numbers tell passing parking-enforcement agents which spaces have expired.
For drivers or curious passers-by, however, the display takes time to light up. A few taps on the key pad elicit bleeping noises and a “low battery alarm” message on the display. (If Reino wins the D.C. contract, its meters will be solar-powered, says Karyn Good, spokesperson for the Georgetown Project, a public-private effort to overhaul the neighborhood’s underground utilities.)
Both meters have tripped up oblivious parkers who haven’t noticed signs directing them to “pay at meter station.” “We’re going back to [the signage] to make changes,” Good says.
“Every single time someone tries to park there, they come in here and ask [how to use] it,” Revolution Cycles manager Scott Hansen says.
Drivers are also thrown by the Reino meter’s bay numbers, which are on curb-level placards. Without meter posts to mark the spaces, drivers tend to pull in on the boundaries between spots. Those who do end up with tickets.
Witnessing the arrangement, one passer-by offers a prediction about the Reino: “Expect to see someone take a baseball bat to that thing real soon.” CP