Attorney Don Dinan was rushed for a court date last Monday when he scored a choice parking spot right in front of the D.C. Superior Court. He parked his green Chevrolet on the 400 block of G Street, smack-dab in front of one of the District’s new, high-tech parking meters. He didn’t even mind that he had to jog across the street to a vendor to buy a juice to break his bills for change. “Thinking I’d had good luck,” says Dinan, “I got out and put in quarters.”
But that’s where Dinan’s luck ran out. He deposited quarter after quarter into the new mechanical/electronic contraptionwhich displays the minutes remaining in digital numbers on the meter headbut no time registered. “Nothing happened,” Dinan says. “After about three quarters, I came to the conclusion that nothing was going to happen.”
Scores of D.C. motorists are reaching the same conclusion these days.
When the District officials last winter signed a $25 million, seven-year contract with Lockheed Martin for that company to replace and repair parking meters, they hailed a new era in parking regulation. The new meters, they said, would be tougher to plunder and would accept nickels and dimesa great feature for quarter-starved urbanites. As it turns out, the machines readily accept all kinds of currency, but give no meter time in return.
By Dinan’s account, unresponsive meters preside over whole city blocks. After pumping his meter with quarters, Dinan checked the one next to his, and the one next to that. All the meters were new, all were at the head of parked cars, but they all flashed zero. “Every meter on the block was flashing. So I said to myself, everyone can’t be a scofflaw,” says Dinan.
So he’s not alone. Not by a long shot.
“I couldn’t believe it,” says Adam Maier, a Capitol Hill resident. “I put my dime into this shiny new meter, and I got no time.”
Only the most civic-minded types complained about the old regime, when a wave of meter vandalism ushered in citywide something-for-nothing parking. Now motorists are getting nothing for something, and they’re mad as hell. Ron Jackson, chief of meter operations for the Department of Public Works, says his office has fielded about 25 calls from citizens and parking attendants about dysfunctional meters. “I think maybe it’s a bad battery or a bad cell or a minor malfunction,” says Jackson. “Maybe fresh batteries haven’t been installed.” As good as the new meters are, he adds, some of them aren’t smart enough to accept anything under a quarter. “A few may not give time on a nickel and dime, so we’ve had to reprogram,” says Jackson.
Whatever the cause, says Jackson, there’s no municipal crisis afoot. A few kinks with new models are standard, he says, adding that most of the meters are functioning properly. “Yeah, some of them [aren’t working], just like when you buy a new car and sometimes it doesn’t work,” he says. “But it’s been less than 1 percent.”
Jackson insists that the new metera Duncan Eaglewill make believers out of D.C. residents. “This is probably the best meter on the market,” he says. He adds that the new meters are even stronger because contractors are welding them onto the existing poles, instead of using screws, as they did with the old models. That makes them “vandal-resistant,” Jackson says, although not “vandal-proof.”
“You’ll never have a product that will be foolproof, but you make it as strong as you can,” he says.
Sometimes, Lockheed Martin has settled for putting a new wig on an old problem. Attorney Dinan says that two years ago, a car bent the pole of a parking meter at the corner of 20th and I Streets NW. Lockheed Martin replaced the missing meter head, but the pole is still bent. “So you’ve got this new meter shooting off at a 45 degree angle,” Dinan says. “You almost have to see it to see how absurd it is.”
For the next seven years, righting cockeyed poles and reprogramming meters is the job of Lockheed Martin, not the District government. The contractor is also required to make sure 97 percent of the meters are working at all times, says Jim Davison, spokesperson for the D.C. financial control board. Davison adds that he hasn’t heard about any problems with the new meters. “It’s weird,” says Davison. “People yell at us about a lot of stuff. But they haven’t yelled at us about parking meters.”
Some of the complaints, Jackson adds, are likely problems with old meters, not the new ones. “A lot of times citizens call in about old meters,” says Jackson. “They don’t know the difference.” Sure we do. Most of the old ones were free.CP