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More to Do about Parking

by on April 28, 2011 6:00 AM

My recent article about parking in downtown State College generated a lot of discussion on the Internet, via e-mail and from people approaching me in person. Given the level of interest and some additional information I received, I decided to write a follow-up.

In case you missed it, I wrote that I had come to the conclusion that it was time for me and for the people who live in my house to stop the insanity of what I have come to refer to as "that parking nonsense." Because my family uses downtown State College to work, shop and play, we are at greater risk statistically for getting tickets. With tickets, fines, magistrate fees and "the boot," we have spent way too much time and money dealing with parking in our house. I wondered whether there might be other people like me who are changing how we use the downtown because of what seems to be increasingly "unfriendly" parking policies.

I made some people very angry.

Some readers thought I was whining and that I should just follow the rules, feed the meters and shut up. Other readers thought I was blaming the parking office or the parking enforcement staff for our own parking errors. To clarify, we take full responsibility for not working within the existing system. I cringe when I think of all the fun I could have at T.J. Maxx with that ticket money.

A few people pointed me to the parking garages, as they are allegedly cheaper and appear to have plenty of spaces available. Sorry, but the Kleban females think it is creepy to walk into a parking garage alone at night — even in Happy Valley.

One person who identified him or herself only as a downtown business owner said, "We don't want your business." That person didn't put his or her name to the comments, but several others did. A friend who owns a business I frequent indicated that the busy business owners he talked to just laughed about my commentary. Some who aren't as busy were mad because my suggestion to avoid the downtown only fueled the fire. Another said, "The Downtown Improvement District and the Parking Office need to make sure we have the same vision."

In the hours after my article appeared, a member of the borough's parking advisory committee posted a comment that she also was not in support of the repeat-offender program and that there had been no consensus on a graduated fine schedule for repeat offenders. I heard via a borough insider that the writer took some heat for taking a public stand and removed the comment shortly after posting it.

The day after my article went live on the Internet, I received a very nice letter from Charles DeBow, borough parking manager. He responded to several of my concerns and outlined some of the rationale behind his policies. He provided documentation that the state Department of Agriculture Bureau of Standard Weights and Measures had earlier in March calibrated 790 parking meters and all had been approved with the maximum plus-or-minus error of about 19 seconds.

He clarified that it is not illegal to plug someone else's meter unless the additional time would be in excess of the posted limits. He said the meter key, while more convenient, does not prevent tickets. He assured me that the garages are statistically very safe. He said he thinks the ticketing system in several of the private lots downtown has possibly helped to create negative perceptions about parking in the borough overall.

DeBow also indicated that the parking enforcement officers (PEOs) have little discretion in enforcement, and he assured me "that we enforce the parking rules fairly and consistently to all people." He said he rarely hears complaints about tickets written in error.

Unfortunately, many who responded to my article might disagree.

I received many comments and e-mails from readers who shared their stories of parking tickets, interactions with the PEOs and their often comical reactions to what some view as an uninviting and punitive parking system. Quite a few said, "I don't go downtown because of parking." Most who expressed frustration with the parking policies were people who desire to "go local," including parents taking kids to the library. I heard about one person's fantasy to "ring his doorbell and run" in response to finding another ticket.

A mother of teenage drivers shared a story about having her car booted in front of her home in the borough on a Saturday when the parking office was closed (and she therefore couldn't pay for tickets she didn't know she had), then getting two more tickets on the booted car.

One person said he was meeting a business colleague for coffee and watched his car being ticketed and then watched the PEO make a cell phone call. When that downtown visitor pulled out of the parking spot, a borough police officer pulled him over to cite him for an expired inspection sticker. He still questions whether it was just a coincidence.

Unfortunately, I heard many people say, "They seem to target me." It is rumored that one PEO is so zealous is his ticket writing that he once ticketed his own car for an expired meter. The accompanying photo seems to dispel that rumor, however.

One person summed her feelings with this: Downtown is not a big attraction due to the parking enforcement policies, not the lack of parking.

Since my article appeared, I have learned that the new parking meters being installed on College Avenue will represent a next step in collecting information about how people use the downtown and will help to further determine policy, including perhaps extending "need to pay" hours. Customers may be able to pay at the new meters with a credit or debit card. The new parking meters can be set to clear to zero when a car pulls out of a spot; the joy of finding a meter with minutes remaining from the previous car may become a thing of the past.

It has also been reported that the borough is considering a computer system that will let the PEOs scan license plates for outstanding tickets, thereby improving collection of fines and warrants.

According to information presented at a recent Borough Council work session, revenue to the Parking Department in the first quarter of 2011 was estimated to be $677,000, up from first quarter 2010. Parking expenses for the same 2011 time period totaled $624,000.

Parking in the Borough of State College is big business.

DeBow invited me to meet him to talk about my perceptions about downtown parking and pointed out in his letter: "One thing that I can't stress enough is that the Parking Department truly believes, and is the primary factor in all of our operational and policy decisions, that our customers are ultimately a customer of a downtown business. If we create hurdles that inhibit a person's ability, or their choice, to patronize a downtown business, we have failed in our responsibility."

I plan to take him up on his offer to chat now that my schedule is winding down.

As for the Kleban parking situation? I'm happy to report that in the month since my article was posted, we have had zero new tickets. We are one for one on tickets for which we pled "not guilty" at the magistrate's office and have two more not "guilty pleas" pending for tickets past. A nonscientific analysis of our shopping and dining decisions in the past month suggests that we are leaning toward places that provide free parking.

Summer semester is almost here, which historically for us has meant easier and more frequent use of downtown: Arts Fest and college-aged daughters commuting to the downtown for work and recreation. I'll let you know how it goes.

Patty Kleban is an instructor at Penn State, mother of three and a community volunteer. She is a Penn State Alumna. Readers of State College Magazine voted her Best Writer of 2010 and 2012. She and her family live in Patton Township. Her views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State.
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