-by Jason Hedrington
Earlier in our ongoing research into parking issues in Bethlehem, we reported that the BPA was testing and proposing wide-spread installation of new “Smart” Meters. It was our understanding that the meters were still in a test phase yet to be approved by City Council and, therefore, a chance remained for us to not only organize and prevent the proposed changes but to also counter the BPA’s plan with our own solutions to the city’s parking problems via a fair and healthy compromise that would benefit all parties.
While the ultimate achievement of this compromise is still in sight (and our culminating manifesto is still to be presented in the final installment of this series) we have unfortunately discovered a major blow to the battle.
According to sources at the BPA (Director Tom Hartley), the new meters are already on their way and ready to be installed as early as NEXT WEEK. That’s right Bethlehem–in just a few days the city will be invaded, en masse, by these new flashing meters.
more on Tom http://bethlehem.patch.com/articles/new-parking-authority-chief-has-casino-background
“During August and September, we launched a test with 48 single-space smart meters & 24 sensors on Broad Street. Our overall objectives included assessing various elements such as end-user experience, cashless payment systems via credit & debit card acceptance, real-time maintenance notification, better financial auditing, parking utilization/turn ratios, and financial performance. The smart meters performed well, and the test area was expanded to Fourth Street on the Southside during late November. We are in the process of procuring approximately four hundred units to be installed in the downtown business areas. Our long-term plans include payment integration with mobile technology, and pushing parking availability to public via maps & smart-phones. I’ve just received notice that a partial order of 100 units were shipped yesterday…they should arrive early next week (installation will begin upon receipt); the remaining units are expected by the end of the month.”
Is there time to stop the next shipment? Is there still a chance to get these new meters removed? As of this report, we are researching whether these meter changes were indeed approved by city council or not. If they were not, we are also researching whether these meters are in fact LEGAL, for, as you may remember from our last report, issues such as meter placement and rate changes must be approved by council. (*I was told today by a council member that the BPA must hold a public hearing, which they did, and it was advertised in the newspaper and attended by ONE citizen… seems to me that if they really wanted the public to be there, they’d advertise it somewhere the public actually READS- like the Bethlehem Facebook page -ed.) Our contact in city hall assures us that the chamber and the DBA (Downtown Business Association) approved of the changes, but the decision ultimately is not theirs to decide. And there is also a slight controversy concerning the supposed “support” of the DBA (perhaps more on that in a future issue).
While we dig for more information concerning the “legality” of the new meters, we believed it would be important and pertinent to inform you on exactly what these new meters are. This is what is about to hit your streets, Bethlehem:
- The Smart Meters are built by IPS Group (http://www.ipsgroupinc.com), a San Diego, California based company specializing in both parking meters and low power telecommunications. To underscore this basic point, the meters will not support local or even state business.
- The meters are–to their credit–solar powered. That’s one thing we can give them a “hats-off” to. The rest? Not so much.
- The main thing that make these meters “smart” is that they are equipped with sensors that document when a car pulls into a space. The meters are equipped to store this information which the BPA can use for demographic research.
The rub of this interesting technological advancement is that the meters can also sense WHEN YOUR CAR LEAVES the space. Again, this can be used to document such things as how long people stay at meters which the BPA can then use to decide what zones are more likely to be used for short or long-term parking. But the insidious disadvantage is that when the meters sense you have left THEY ERASE ANY TIME LEFT ON THE METER. That’s right. In our view this is all sorts of wrong. Putting coins in for a specific amount of time is like entering into a basic contract; whether or not you use all the time, YOU PAID FOR THAT AMOUNT OF TIME. This seems like not only cheating, in our opinion, but is also a breach of that simple agreement and contract. It’s simply wrong and downright immoral. (* the BPA has set these meters to offer you 15 minutes for free to compensate for this. They feel that if you are just running in and out of somewhere, or need to go get change because you don’t want to use your credit card, that this will help you. It’s seemingly fair-ish. -ed.)
Pulling into a meter space and finding that there is already time on it is probably the ONLY joy that the meters bring us; it’s like winning a little prize–it makes you smile and puts a little bounce in your step. So, besides breaking a contract and stealing from people, erasing the extra time is essentially taking away the one and only thing anybody likes about the meters. To use a condescending phrase of our time…high five, City of Bethlehem and BPA…high five. They will take your extra money, but are they going to reimburse you for time you don’t use? We doubt it. And perhaps that is something we can ask for when we fight back. Perhaps they could program the meters to reimburse extra time onto your credit card.
Credit card? More on that in a moment.
As we understand it, these meters come at a price of roughly $500 each. So, the BPA, in this era of fixing their reported severe budget woes, is immediately investing FIFTY THOUSAND DOLLARS (*or perhaps a long term payment plan? A grant from the state? Loan? What? -ed.) in these meters and is poised to spend as much as a QUARTER MILLION to replace meters we already have. Not to mention, if you click the link above, it reports Mr. Hartley’s yearly salary to be a whopping $90,000! The math seems easy–invest a huge amount of money into new meters and raise the rates. Again, WE shoulder the cost.
Next. The smart meters will be equipped with credit/debit card readers. Therefore, the meters are also connected to an internet network. On the surface, this is being presented as a convenience for users. No coins or tokens? No problem! Just insert your debit/credit card to pay for your meter.
This, however, comes with questions and a price.
First of all, not to sound paranoid, but in this age of identity theft and hacking, can we really be assured that a credit card inserted into a simple street meter will be safe? If some sort of information theft occurs, will the BPA be insured and reimburse any victims? (* I spoke with a rep from the company and they said they are ‘PCI compliant level 1, and are audited every year in order to keep said status. He assured me no information is stored within the meter and is linked directly to the city’s merchant account. He also said there have been zero reported cases of identity theft from their meters. OK so that’s a relief! -ed.)
But even more concerning is that according to IPS’s website, they charge THIRTEEN CENTS per credit card transaction. Who do you think shoulders that cost? Is it a coincidence that the BPA is installing these extremely expensive smart meters that ACTUALLY COST THEM MONEY TO OPERATE and our meter rates increase at the same time?
While we are not prepared at this point to lead an activist campaign against them (as mentioned, we want to offer compromises first), we have already heard murmurs of citizens planning ‘money bomb’ situations in which they use their credit cards for minimum transactions. In other words, using their credit card for a nickel transaction which would actually COST the BPA 8 cents of loss per transaction, therefore costing the BPA more money than the meters are worth.
All of these changes are on your doorstep. Get ready for the smart meters. The fight continues. Stay tuned.