Paid parking resumes downtown April 2, new pay stations will be installed mid-March

The new parking kiosks are coming to downtown Great Falls this spring.

The City Commission voted in November to purchase 16 pay stations, two of which will go in the city’s parking garages, and the other 14 will line Central Avenue from Park Drive to 8th Street.

There will be one station per block on each side of the street, according to the city planning department.

Staff will start installing the pay stations mid-March and they’ll go live with paid parking again April 2.

The regular, coin-operated meters will be reinstalled on the side streets throughout downtown. Those meters, and the new pay stations, can all be paid with the Passport Parking app that has been available for downtown parking for several years.

New parking pay stations have arrived; city working on implementation plans

Downtown parking has been free since March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic in an effort by the city to support downtown restaurants, bars and retailers.

But, that’s put a significant strain on the parking fund, which is an enterprise fund that’s supported by fees and fines from parking and not taxpayer funds.

The City Commission did approve the use of tax increment financing funds several years ago to make a number of repairs in the city garages, to include upgraded lighting, security cameras and other repairs.

Board recommends new management contract for parking operations

As of Feb. 18, the parking fund balance was $17,000 and by the end of the month, the fund will be negative, according to Craig Raymond, city planning director, meaning the fund will borrow from other city funds and pay it back as revenues return.

To use the kiosks:

  • Park in any space along Central Avenue
  • Make note of your license plate number
  • Find the kiosk nearest to you
  • Once at the kiosk press any button to activate, enter your license plate number, select how long you’d like to park, make payment with cash, coin, or credit
  • City enforcement staff will use mobile license plate recognition to validate your payment
  • Looking for a touchless option? Skip the kiosk and set up a virtual wallet on the Passport App

The city also purchased license plate recognition equipment and software, as well as parking enforcement and back-end software.

City approves purchase of new parking meters, LPR technology and associated fees

State law requires that municipalities develop policies for the use of LPR and staff presented their draft to the parking board during their Feb. 18 meeting. The board voted to recommend that the City Commission approve the policy and the commission is expected to consider the policy at their March 16 meeting, according to city staff. State law also governs what LPR can be used for and specific prohibitions.

“Some communities across the United States have chosen to utilize LPR to assist in the identification and reporting to authorities of stolen vehicles. In some cases, as the enforcement vehicle would roll along, the cameras would read a license plate that would have been reported as a stolen vehicle and law enforcement would be notified. In Great Falls, this practice will not be permitted and a policy manual will be written to discourage any such unauthorized use of the capabilities that exist with LPR technology,” according to a November staff report.

City considering fees associated with modern parking enforcement technology

According to the policy, the LPR device will be used only by the city parking division or the city’s parking enforcement contractor for parking enforcement.

“It shall not be used to take photographs of the occupants of that vehicle or of a vehicle in motion. Use of the LPR device and data collected by the LPR device by the Parking Services Division shall not be used for any other purpose, including for law enforcement outside of enforcing parking ordinances within the Parking Management District as established by the Great Falls City Commission,” according to Raymond’s administrative policy draft.

The city resumed parking enforcement last summer with fines for violations of the two-hour time limit and other infractions, but parking has been free since March when city staff suspended the fee due to COVID-19 in an effort to support downtown businesses doing curbside and delivery operations.

City moving forward with plans for license plate readers, pay stations for downtown parking

The Parking Advisory Commission had discussed the possibility of switching to modern meters for years, but after a March 2020 break-in at the parking office in the North Parking Garage, the conversation picked up steam. During the break-in, a meter key went missing, which gave access to all of the city’s parking meters and the money inside of them.

The parking board includes members who represent the Downtown Great Falls Association, the Business Improvement District and the Homebuilders Association of Great Falls. Other downtown business owners and citizens have served on the board over the years and there is currently an opening for a partial term.

The key was later recovered by a maintenance worker checking the elevator mechanical room.

City considering license plate recognition, pay stations for downtown parking enforcement

Since the city wasn’t able to rekey the meters, staff worked on alternate plans to replace the meters with newer, modern pay stations and use license plate reader technology for parking enforcement.

In June, the Parking Advisory Commission voted to recommend that plan. The new technology comes with an upfront cost, but also an estimated cost savings over time, according to city staff.

Craig Raymond, city planning director, said the upfront cost of the new equipment in year one is about $170,500.

Downtown parking enforcement resumes June 22

The multi-space pay stations will be coupled with license plate reader technology and equipment. With LPR, “cameras are mounted to a vehicle and connected to a computer inside the vehicle. The system continually scans vehicle license plates, communicates with the multi-space pay stations and the mobile payment app., and will alert the driver when a vehicle has either not paid, their session has expired, or they have stayed in the same spot for over 2-hours. Once the driver receives the alert, they may stop the vehicle to write and print a citation. The significant advantage of adopting LPR technology is the speed, efficiency, and accuracy of covering the downtown parking enforcement district compared to patrolling on foot,” according to the city staff report.

City continuing with plan to upgrade to pay stations, license plate readers for downtown parking

The new parking related fees will pass some of the additional costs onto those who use the parking system, versus absorbing those costs into the parking fund, which has dwindling reserves, mostly due to COVID.

Raymond said in October that the parking system’s reserve fund was about $493,000 in March 2020 but as of November, it was about $350,000. He said that typically, the program brings in $25,000 to $35,000 monthly from meter revenue, but the city hasn’t been charging for metered parking since March.

Downtown group asks city to convert one-ways to two-way traffic

The city has selected Passport Parking, which already serves as the city’s contractor for the mobile parking app, to handle those software aspects and the company uses a cost recovery structure the puts certain costs and fees on those users that use elements of the software versus spreading the entire cost equally across all users, according to the city.

Parking meter key recovered, city considering options

For example, the users who receive parking citations are assessed a $3 citation management platform fee, on top of their normal timed parking violation fine of $5, $10, $20 or $100.

Those who are cited and don’t pay the fine and fee within 30 days will be assessed a 25 percent fee above the total amount, according to the staff report.

Additional fees will accumulate based on costs associated with letters and invoices sent and other collections efforts or the appeal process, according to the city staff report.

The proposal also includes a monthly $2.50 fee for those who purchase monthly parking passes for the garages or surface lots.

Parking meter heads removed due to break-in at city parking office; theft of meter keys

The transaction fee for mobile payments for parking will be increased by 10 cents from a quarter to 35 cents.

The city also has the Passport Parking smartphone app that allows people to pay for parking from their mobile phones. Raymond said usage has increased for the app, but the city is continuing to work on raising awareness of that option.

The city parking program has long struggled and in recent years made adjustment to the fees and fine structures to generate more revenue for needed repairs at the city’s two public garages. Discussion of replacing the older meters with newer technologies has been ongoing for years, but the events of early 2020 demonstrated that “certain failures are catastrophic to the health of the program fund balance and the ability to adapt to changing circumstances,” according to city staff.

City approves parking meter increase for downtown Great Falls

Most of the user fees will pass through to Passport Parking but 10 cents of each 35 cent mobile payment for parking fee will remain with the city to help cover associated costs associated with merchant service fees and credit card transactions that the city will incur for offering the convenient payment options to customers, according to city staff.