Frustrated drivers throughout Seattle have had problems this week with the city's automated parking machines, and some have received tickets for unpaid parking after being unable to pay through no fault of their own.
Many of the machines inexplicably stopped accepting credit-card payments, leaving drivers to dig through pockets and purses looking for spare change.
Media accounts of the problem — and the city's response to it — have left people even more confused. Here are answers to some basic questions about the meters and how irritated drivers might pursue refunds if they feel they've been unfairly fined.
What caused the problem with the parking meters?
The parking meters use a wireless connection to a cell tower to transmit credit card information. Because of a problem with a tower on First Hill, the meters were intermittently unable to transmit, according to Richard Sheridan, spokesman for the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT). The city contracts with a company called Parkeon for the meters, Sheridan said, and Parkeon uses Velocita Wireless for transmission.
The cell-tower problem was fixed as of Wednesday (June 8), but some machines are still broken due to after-effects of the problem, Sheridan said. Each machine requires an in-person visit from a technician for repair.
Has the city gotten many complaints about the problem?
About 500 people called on Tuesday, the peak day for complaints.
How many machines were affected, and where? How many are still broken?
As many as a hundred of the city's 2,200 machines were affected, in areas including downtown, Capitol Hill and the University District. As of this afternoon, only 10 machines were down, Sheridan said.
Are people being ticketed if they can't pay using a machine?
Sgt. Sean Whitcomb, police department spokesman, said police are being very lenient, assessing each situation before issuing a ticket. Officers usually can determine if people haven’t paid due to the machine's problems, because the city can monitor which machines are working. However, officers are still ticketing for other parking violations, such as parking for three hours in two-hour spots.
How do officers assess whether to give someone a ticket?
They look for clues, such as: Have the drivers of nearby cars paid, meaning the meter is working? Has the violating driver left a note saying the meter wouldn't work? Have other drivers nearby left notes?
Can drivers get refunds if they feel they've been ticketed unfairly? If so, how?
Yes. According to Sheridan, the city will give refunds, despite some media reports to the contrary. To request a refund, call SDOT at 206-733-9241.
What’s being done to fix the problem?
The parking meters are designed to report problems, such as having too many coins in the slot, or running out of paper. That alerts the city to send a technician to a particular meter; that's how the city knows it has 10 machines left to fix. Sheridan said the city is working with Parkeon to resolve the situation. Parkeon had not returned a phone call by the time this story was posted.
How much longer is the problem going to last?
According to Sheridan the problem should be fixed by Friday (June 10).