Out-of-commission parking meters on the rise and cell service could be to blame
By JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
Eleven percent of the parking meters throughout Montclair are now out of commission, up from the 4.5% reported in June. And residents have taken to social media to vent their frustration over getting tickets for parking at inoperable meters.
In June, officials reminded residents that township parking provisions state that drivers cannot park at a meter without using some sort of payment method. If the meter is broken, motorists should use the ParkMobile app, the township warned, or risk a ticket.
Jason Gleason, executive director of the Montclair Center Business Improvement District, said the message that the township is trying to convey — that motorists either use the app or find another parking place when a meter is inoperable — isn’t working.
“I have heard from a number of businesses, who have heard from a number of customers who have gotten tickets at these meters,” Gleason said. “It’s not ideal for the business community.”
And out-of-towners would have no way of knowing, he added.
Councilman Peter Yacobellis said he heard from over a dozen residents in 48 hours that they received tickets for parking at a broken meter. Many people may not have access to the app, he said.
“Should we be ticketing when people may not have access to the app and until we work this out?” Yacobellis said.
Because the business industry standard is 2% for malfunctioning meters, not 11%, Gleason said the town should give some leniency.
In June, utility superintendent Manny Germano said inoperable meters have been a long-term problem in Montclair, but the shutdown during the pandemic made the problem worse.
Pre-pandemic, the number of malfunctioning meters fluctuated between 60 and 100 daily out of the 1,300 throughout town, but the township was able to get parts at the time to fix them, Germano said.
During the pandemic shut down the number of broken meters climbed to 160. That number was then down to 60 per day, but now has climbed to about 150, Germano said.
Meters have been jammed with gum, coins wrapped in gum, gum wrappers, paper clips, coin slugs, screws, nails or coins that have been doubled up, but they were usually repaired fairly quickly.
Sometimes a jammed meter can be cleared on site. But if the item used to jam the slot is, for example, gum wrapped around a coin, then the meter must be brought to the shop to disassemble it and clear all of the sensors, he said.
“It depends also on how many refurbished meters we have available to us, the location of the reported broken meters, and the type of repair that is being done that day or throughout the day,” Germano said. “For example, replacing a mechanism takes a certain amount of time, but if someone has stuck something in the lock and we must drill out the lock to remove the cover, what should have been a 10-minute job turns into an hour-long job. Similarly, if someone hits a pole and we must replace it, as opposed to simply straightening it out, that can lead to a three-hour job.”
In the case of a “dead” meter that is not functioning and needs new parts, which are now hard to come by, the meter could remain inoperable for weeks or even months.
Recently a new problem has surfaced: meter internet connectivity.
“We recently learned from the vendor that the current cell service issue is part of the problem with meter batteries losing power. We are in the process of working with the vendor to get a solution to this issue as well,” Germano said.
Parking meters throughout Montclair are currently 2G communication-based and need internet connectivity in order to work, Communications Director Katya Wowk said. Cell service carriers are now upgrading to 4G or 5G.
“Although 2G was state-of-the-art technology only a few years ago, it is now being phased out, and all cell carriers are switching all data devices to a more advanced 4G technology. By the end of 2022, 2G technology will no longer be supported by Verizon and/or other telecom companies,” Germano said.
“We are already seeing a weaker or nonexistent signal, so the meter keeps attempting to establish communication but failing, which, in turn, drains the battery.”
Montclair’s 2G meters are systematically being sent back to the vendor so they can be upgraded to 4G by December 2022.
“The 4G upgraded meters that we have been receiving back from the vendor have been working flawlessly, with the exception of those that have been vandalized,” Germano said.
All metered spaces can receive three forms of payment: coins, credit cards and ParkMobile (which motorists can call, or use the ParkMobile app).
For now, Yacobellis said he believes the township should change the law to remove two components: parking at a broken meter as a violation and jail time as a possible penalty for a violation.
“I think we should do this until the broken rate comes down to at least the national average,” he said. “These are things we’ll discuss in the Economic Development Committee and likely the Finance Committee because of the implications on revenues. Given the council’s recent actions to address parking challenges downtown, it’s incumbent on us to do our best to make every spot available to everyone.”
In the meantime, Germano advised, drivers should pay by ParkMobile if the meter card or coin slot is jammed, or the screen is blank. “Otherwise, you need to park in a different space,” he said.
But Gleason said that shoppers are still in a pandemic mode in which they need short-term, in-and-out parking in which coin meters are still welcomed.
“They need to pick up a prescription at CVS, a toy for a birthday party or a $40 takeout meal. If that $40 takeout meal doubles because of a parking ticket due to the meter not working, that can be a problem for our business community,” he said.
Yacobellis said that he is pushing for every meter, mechanically functional or not, to have ParkMobile instructions on it.
Mayor Sean Spiller said at a June 22 Township Council meeting that transitioning to cashless meters could be on the horizon.
Gleason will be helping to facilitate a program tonight, Oct. 5, called “Parking: It’s the [expletive]” at DesignShed, MDW21 HUB, 641 Bloomfield Ave., at 7 p.m. Tickets to the in-person are free at designshed.org.