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Did your ‘smart’ parking meter just go blank on you? A city audit explains why

How to pay for Sacramento meters remotely

The city's new parking meter app lets you pay for more time on meters using your smart phone. Previous time limits will no longer apply at a select group of meters around the Crocker Art Museum. The zone for extended time meters will be phased in
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The city's new parking meter app lets you pay for more time on meters using your smart phone. Previous time limits will no longer apply at a select group of meters around the Crocker Art Museum. The zone for extended time meters will be phased in

The sensors on Sacramento’s “smart” parking meters fail 16 percent of the time, an internal audit found, likely causing some downtown motorists to receive invalid citations.

The sensors, which use radar to determine whether a car is parked in the adjacent spot, are required to be 95 percent correct, according to terms of a city contract with the company that provides them.

City Auditor Jorge Oseguera, in a report to be presented to the City Council, said his investigators found the meters with the highest failure rates were in the core downtown, near the Golden 1 Center arena and state office buildings.

The review found the problem was sometimes due to low charges on meter batteries, which are solar-powered. Oseguera said that could cause a sensor to zero out the meter even if a car is parked there.

Rundown batteries were more frequent in winter, the review found, when there is less sunlight. The city likely lost $250,000 in revenue as well last year because some drivers parked without paying, figuring the meter was broken.

Those findings were part of a 48-page report that assessed city parking meter performance since the city installed smart meters a few years ago that can accept electronic and credit card payments as well as cash.

The review was launched after meter glitches in 2017 caused a spike in false $42.50 citations being issued downtown, angering thousands of motorists. In that half-year period, the city dismissed 3,292 citations, acknowledging meter errors.

The report found an array of issues that Oseguera said could be fixed as city parking officials continue their learning curve with the technology.

“We are looking at a new advanced technology which involves some growing pains,” the auditor said. “We have identified additional ... types of change we will need to make to improve the overall experience.”

The analysis also found that it typically takes six months for the city to review citations that have been contested by motorists who feel the ticket was unfair.

Fewer meter errors would lead to fewer citations, and would speed up review time for contested tickets, the auditor said.

The audit also found problems with the city’s ParkMobile smartphone app, which allows drivers to pay electronically. Nearly 20 percent of those transactions failed to register on the meter, the auditor wrote.

In particular, meters near the Golden 1 Center are configured in a way that fails to turn the meter light from red to green, leaving drivers uncertain whether their payment has been registered.

Even when a meter registers a payment, there are notable delays at some meters before the motorist is alerted.

Seventy percent of the time when a customer used the ParkMobile app, the payment registered on the meter within one minute. But 16 percent of the time, it took more than five minutes to register, forcing the motorist to wait or possibly move their vehicle, figuring the payment did not happen.

City parking officials, in a response letter, acknowledged the issues, and said they are working with the vendor to improve battery charges. They also said they will soon begin eliminating the meter green light system. Instead, motorists who pay via ParkMobile app will get verification on the app that the payment has been registered.

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Tony Bizjak has been reporting for The Bee for nearly 30 years. He covers transportation, housing and development and previously was the paper’s City Hall beat reporter.

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