Greater Greater Washington

Parking


It's a little harder to pay for parking in Montgomery County

Montgomery County's limited options for paying for parking, besides using piles of quarters, shrank some more yesterday, as the county announced it will not longer support popular Parking Meter Cash Keys.


Photo by the author.

These keys allow drivers to load and store value on the key at a county parking office. When parking, the driver can insert the key into the meter, which will then deduct money every 15 minutes at short-term meters and 3 hours at long-term meters. There is no charge other than a refundable deposit for the keys.

Many people use the cash keys instead of having to carry about $5.50 in quarters to park for a full day. But Tuesday morning, the county's Division of Parking Management announced in a press release that the program will be discontinued. The keys will continue working in meters, but people will not be able to get new keys or add value to existing keys after Monday.

County spokesperson Esther Bowring stated that she does not have information about how many cash keys are in circulation, but estimated the number to be in the tens of thousands.

Bowring said the sudden discontinuation came because of a software glitch that the manufacturer of the cash keys (Duncan Technologies) was not willing or able to fix. As a result, the county is transitioning to a new contractor for all of its payment-related services.

Other alternatives to quarters are limited

The county's press release touts a "Smart Meter Debit Card" as a replacement for the cash keys, but these smart meters are only available in Bethesda. That means that the only non-coin option in the Silver Spring and Wheaton garages is a monthly "Parking Convenience Sticker" (PCS) that costs $113-$123 per month. This is not a valid option for residents that mostly use transit, but may need to drive occasionally.

New meters that accept credit and debit cards will be on street in Silver Spring "later this year," according to the press release. It does not mention whether the credit card meters will also go inside the garages.

Cell phone payment is available in some garages, but not all. That's because enforcement officers were not able to get a reliable wireless signal in underground garages, preventing them from verifying whether someone has parked with pay-by-phone or just has an expired meter.

When the county rolled out pay by phone, to great fanfare in 2011 and 2012, I tried to park in a Silver Spring garage, but noticed the sticker denoting the space was missing. A parking services manager on the phone blamed this on homeless people vandalizing the meters (which seemed odd for a garage that was 3 stories below ground level.) But the "Go Park Now" (Now "MobileNow") application did not recognize the number, meaning that, in fact, the county had not programmed it to work with those meters.

Officials could extend cell phone service inside the garages with "PicoCells" or "Network Extenders." Residential versions are available from the mobile phone companies for approximately $250, and act as miniature cell towers that connect to a land line.

According to Bowring, county officials did examine this option, but initially ruled it out as each floor of each garage would need a separate unit for each mobile carrier. But now that the meter keys are not an option, she said that the county will revisit the possibility.

Though units suitable for garages plus maintenance will cost more than the $250 a resident would have to pay, it would be worthwhile for the county to spend some of its parking revenue to make the phone-based payment system work while Silver Spring residents wait for their transit center, Purple Line, Metropolitan Branch Trail, Bus Rapid Transit, longer VanGo hours or other long-promised alternatives to driving.

Joe Fox has been a local resident for over 30 years, and currently lives and works in Silver Spring. He tries to travel around the area via as many modes as possible, including car, metrorail, bus, bicycle, kayak, and light aircraft. He works as an IT Program Manager, has worked as a traffic reporter in Washington and Baltimore since 2007, and is an active flight instructor in fixed wing aircraft. 

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I've always felt that silver dollars are useful and should be in circulation more.

by Gerald F on Jul 16, 2014 1:27 pm • linkreport

@Gerald F - I think you mean gold dollar coins - and I couldn't agree more. I actually find them far more convenient then carrying $1 bills around as change, though I know I'm in a minority on that position.

I only have the most basic knowledge of commercial picocells, but the cost, including installation, would easily be above $6,000 per unit, if not twice to three times that (or more). Not saying it is not a good idea, but the cost for a residential $250 unit really has no bearing on what is involved in a commercial deployment (better hardware, equipment tuning/setup, electrical wiring, bringing fiber into the building and running it to the individual units). I realize the author did note that deploying them would 'cost more than $250,' but I think that most would substantially underestimate the cost using $250 as a basis.

I wonder if this could be done much cheaper by just deploying secured WiFi hotspots on most floors - though likely the equipment that parking enforcement is using isn't WiFi compatible.

by Ross on Jul 16, 2014 1:59 pm • linkreport

Gerald is half right.

Its outrageous that every meter built after 1980 does not take (the smaller, modern) dollar coins. They were created to be almost the exact same size as quarters because it makes it that much easier for machinery to accept both - unlike the giant Ikes of the past.

Its not hard to go to the bank, get a couple of rolls, and leave them in the car to be used as needed. Thats what Ive done when I visit SF, where parking can cost up to $6 an hour.

by JJJJ on Jul 16, 2014 2:02 pm • linkreport

Fascinating. I've never seen one of these before. How do they not get stolen? I'm certain I would forget mine, leave it in the meter, and just drive away the first 20 or so times I used it.

by RDHD on Jul 16, 2014 2:15 pm • linkreport

Ross, hate to out-pedant you, but they're copper with manganese-brass cladding (or copper/nickel alloy, for the Susan B. Anthony ones that are still in circulation), not gold. ;)

I agree, though, I find them much easier to deal with than dollar bills. They're a bit hard to tell from quarters in your pocket (Canada had it right going with a curve of constant width for theirs), but that criticism is muted by the fact that you can't tell a $1 from a $5 bill in your pocket, either. And a reasonable number of machines do take them, though they rarely say so. Metro fare machines do, as do Safeway and CVS (and probably other) self-checkout machines. (CVS ones often claim to take only the 5¢, 10¢, and mythical 20¢ coins, but actually take dollars, quarters, and pennies, too.)

by TheOtherGlenmont on Jul 16, 2014 3:09 pm • linkreport

@TheOtherGlenmont I believe a law was passed back in the 90s when the new golden coins came out requiring machines to accept them, so pretty much everything does.

Now, finding a machine that takes half-dollars is a challenge. My workplace pepsi vending machine has a slot big enough for them, but it just drops through.

by JJJJ on Jul 16, 2014 3:21 pm • linkreport

I thought all meters in MoCo had ParkNow? Guess I was wrong. MoCo already has credit card meters in the Bethesda Row area, I imagine these will be county wide soon.

by Aaron Miller on Jul 16, 2014 3:48 pm • linkreport

McCo should switch to the ParkMobile App that they use in the District. The parking is keyed to the license plate and general area or building that you park in, therefore you don't need to have an exact space. It would solve the no cell service in the parking garage problem because people could pay for parking just from pretty much anywhere as long as you had the garage code.

by MC on Jul 16, 2014 3:58 pm • linkreport

@RDHD You don't leave the cash key in the meter, you insert and remove it for each segment of time you want to add to the meter (i.e. on a long term meter, insert the cash key twice for 6 hours then put it back in your pocket)

by TG on Jul 16, 2014 4:28 pm • linkreport

"That means that the only non-coin option in the Silver Spring and Wheaton garages is a monthly "Parking Convenience Sticker" (PCS)"

That's not true at all. In addition to the pay-by-phone option mentioned in the article, the two main public garages in Silver Spring have "Pay on Foot" systems, which means a person is issued a ticket when entering the garage and then can stay in the space as long as they want without having to feed a meter - either physically or via phone. Once you are ready to leave you pay at an automated station via any method you want.

by jag on Jul 16, 2014 5:24 pm • linkreport

Jag, every garage in Silver Spring has a different combination of payment. The two near the Civic Center use tickets, you pay when you leave. Cameron St requires users to remember their space number, and pay when you park. Most of the rest use meters, which is the scenario described in this article.

by joe in ss on Jul 16, 2014 5:46 pm • linkreport

"That means that the only non-coin option in the Silver Spring and Wheaton garages is a monthly "Parking Convenience Sticker" (PCS) that costs $113-$123 per month"

Someone clearly didn't do their research, since this statement (on which the entire overly critical article is based) is totally wrong.

by K Street on Jul 17, 2014 10:30 am • linkreport

K street - From the author: thanks for the constructive criticism. Some of what you quoted came from the county, who acknowledges that this is the situation in SOME of the large garages. Their public guidance suggested that CashKey users consider PCS stickers as an alternative, even if that user drove very infrequently.

by joe in ss on Jul 17, 2014 10:57 am • linkreport

Just throwing my $0.03 here as a random shopping citizen. One of the reasons I avoid shopping in those areas of Montgomery County is because of the parking payment issues. I like knowing that when I go to a place, knowing how to pay for parking, not guessing if I need to take tons of quarters or if I can just take my credit card or smart phone. I also don't like not knowing if I pay before/after/during my visit, depending on the location. It's frustrating, MoCo!

by Robert Smith on Jul 18, 2014 8:54 am • linkreport

"Just throwing my $0.03 here as a random shopping citizen. One of the reasons I avoid shopping in those areas of Montgomery County is because of the parking payment issues. I like knowing that when I go to a place, knowing how to pay for parking, not guessing if I need to take tons of quarters or if I can just take my credit card or smart phone. I also don't like not knowing if I pay before/after/during my visit, depending on the location. It's frustrating, MoCo!"

Seriously? Just have some quarters in your car for whenever they're needed; it's the universal toll/parking payment and of course you'll need to use them at one point or another.

by jag on Jul 18, 2014 12:16 pm • linkreport

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