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August 18-31
VOL.14 ISSUE. 26

Meter Muddle

Nathan Raine
Published Thursday August 20, 05:10 pm
Will the City’s new FlexPark system ever pay off?

Photo Credit: Illustration by Evgenia Mikhaylova

Strategic cover up? Multi-million dollar scandal? Simple grace and generosity from the City? Such are the questions quietly surrounding rollout of the City of Saskatoon's new, and oft-malfunctioning, FlexParking stations.


In early August, after months of hearing accounts of entirely unenforced parking downtown, I spent a couple hours hovering around 2nd Ave. & 21st St. trying to get a sense of how much the new parking system is being employed. For the first 20 minutes, keeping an eye on the four terminals around me, everything seemed quite normal — parkers would proceed to the pay terminals, make their transaction, and continue on their way. Then, a young man swooped into a parking spot, exited his car and walked right on by the terminal. I chased him down to inquire.


“No, I didn't forget to pay,” said Evan, an employee of “a popular restaurant” downtown. “A friend told me they're not ticketing now, so I haven't been paying for a while.”


After assuring Evan he wouldn't get in trouble, he said “quite a few” of his co-workers cheat the system, with very few tickets between them. “Don't write about it though,” he said. “It's been nice. I don't want to start getting tickets.”


In February of 2015, after numerous delays, the first FlexParking pay terminals were activated downtown. The new parking system contract was awarded to Cale Systems for a sum of $5.355 million, to be paid mainly through parking revenue. Early reports had the City issuing far fewer parking tickets — almost 7,000 less over the first two months when compared to the same months in 2014. The City attributed the drop to a deliberate “grace period,” allowing the public to acquaint itself with the system before nailing them.


Cut to six months later. That “grace period,” by all appearances, is still in effect.


Reports in the news came out here and there: The length of the grace period could not be revealed. Nor could the amount of revenue lost. Dates for launching additional terminals had been pushed back. Technical problems, such as “data transfer issues,” had arisen.


And so, rumours started to swirl. Is there still a major problem with the parking system? Is parking downtown free indefinitely?


Andrew Hildebrandt, director of Community Standards at the City of Saskatoon, says not anymore.


“It's fully operational in the downtown area,” Hildebrandt said in an interview. “The area [downtown] that was implemented since February and March can expect normal enforcement.”


Hildebrandt also said that downtown parking has been enforced normally for some time, and that the aforementioned data transfer issues had been responsible for longer grace periods.


“Software glitches were leading to a lot of stations going out of order,” he said. “The whole software component was linked to the ability to properly communicate the purchased time to the enforcement car in an effective manner... We've got that remedied now and we're ready to run.


“We don't want to issue tickets in error,” he said. “We’ve seen a couple solid months here for stable operation, a low level of error, so we can mitigate and manage.”


He could not comment on the specific amount, but did confirm that “there will be a loss in revenue” due to the past problems.


“Some people were parking for free and getting away with it, yes. We've admitted that. [But] there's been no serious decrease to indicate that somehow customers are scoffing the system,” he said.


If the data transfer problem had indeed been remedied, then tickets should be expected. As such, a day after the interview with Hildebrandt, Planet S, much like previous tests by CTV and others, parked a car without paying for a full afternoon on 2nd Avenue. After five hours, no ticket.


And ours doesn't seem to be a unique experience. We found a downtown business owner who was willing, after a bit of convincing, to go on record about his parking experience downtown. His job keeps his vehicle parked downtown for full days during the week. He says he hasn't paid in months and has only incurred one ticket.


It was probably within a week after the system opened up that the rumours became widespread that you didn't have to pay. So, a number of us started to experiment and we found that to be generally true.


“A lot of people who work downtown know the system isn’t functioning. It's pretty widespread,” he says. “You'll even hear people telling their friends and coworkers not to worry about [paying for parking].”


Brent Penner, executive director at The Partnership (the downtown business improvement district), says that he's heard similar reports.


“I have heard anecdotally that there are areas on the street that people can park and never pay,” says Penner. “Am I aware of it happening widely? No. I think ultimately the City has to answer to that. If you have a system where you can't enforce things, and be able to go to court and provide information to secure a conviction, then you shouldn't be ticketing. So I think that's contributed to the delay.”


The anonymous downtown business owner admits what he's doing isn't the most ethical, but he believes what the City has done with their parking issue is far worse.


“Obviously as a person using the loophole, I'm a hypocrite. I mean, it's great for those of us who work downtown, but it’s a serious loss to City coffers,” he says. “It seems to be a scandal for Saskatoon. To not to have it work correctly, and not come clean about it? Then there's a problem. I understand that they don't want more people taking advantage of it than there already are. But I think they should acknowledge the problem and fix it, rather than sweep it under the rug.”


On Aug. 12, the City activated an additional 140 pay-stations throughout the downtown core and City Hospital. Incrementally, they plan to continue expanding to Riversdale, Broadway and Sutherland, all before the beginning of October. The new areas will also have grace periods.


“We want to give each of those areas their own special attention, as the customers are getting more acquainted with the system,” Hildebrand says.


Hildebrandt says the City has never hidden from the fact that they've experienced problems.


“I think the biggest mistake the City made back in February is just assuming that the roll-out would be much quicker. We didn't really anticipate the commissioning issues that came up. We're fully disclosing that,” says Hildebrandt.


Penner gives a bit of leeway to the system — and specifically to Hildebrandt, whom he says inherited a difficult problem created by the City.


“The Downtown BID believes that the roll-out could've been done more efficiently and better. The people who are involved in the project now weren't involved when it was first conceived. They inherited a system that I think was almost impossible to deliver on,” says Penner. “But we are optimistic with where it is today.”


But Avi Akkerman, a professor of Geography and Planning at the U of S, believes that either way, more transparency from the City is needed.


“In the interest of transparency in an open society, our civic administration must ensure that full disclosure and reporting occurs on reasons for proposed projects, on competition for projects that are proposed, and evaluation of projects that were completed,” says Akkerman.


So: Simply a gracious turn by the City while working out some kinks, or a strategic cover-up for a broken and messy multi-million dollar project? If the current levels of transparency tell us anything, we'll probably never know.

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