Looking at PayByPhone

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On Sunday, many of y0u may have seen Danny Westneat’s column about the Pay-by-Phone program (the mayor’s proposal to allow the use of a cell phone application to pay for parking). While I am glad that Danny listens to the City Council’s budget deliberations, I am sorry that he did not have space to supply all the facts and that, nowhere else, did the Times run a story with some very pertinent details.

This left readers to decide the issue with incomplete facts and some cherry-picked quotes.

Under the mayor’s proposal, if a driver had not paid for the maximum time allowed (for example, only 90 minutes in a 2 hour zone), it would be possible to add up to the limit (e.g., add up to another 30 minutes), but not beyond. This is an important point as, judging from my inbox, some readers of the piece wrongly assumed that they could add extra time beyond parking limits by using their cell phones. That is not true. To reiterate: limits would be the same as they are now.

Another important fact absent from Danny’s article: in order to make the pay-by-phone system work, there will need to be an additional charge – 35 cents per transaction. This would be administered by a private contractor and likely will increase over time. Customers will pay more for the convenience of using a credit card.

The key issue in this debate is the hit to the City’s revenue that will be caused by more inefficient enforcement of parking rules. Parking enforcement officers (PEOs) encountering a vehicle without a window sticker would need to take the time to check electronically to see if a vehicle had provided payment by phone. The system thus would require additional enforcement officers just to try and keep up with current enforcement levels. The mayor proposes eight PEOs and a supervisor.

In all, the Seattle Department of Transportation figures that the additional time required would affect payments and fines. Estimates are that the city general fund would lose $1.3 million in 2013 and slightly less in 2014.  This is money that could otherwise be allocated to valuable city services (low income health clinics, pothole filling, you name it).

On balance, this seemed to me to be rather a high costs to pay for a relatively minor convenience, one that would not be available to those without cell phones.

The argument that other cities do this may be a convincing one, but cities do vary in offering amenities. For example: Seattle has free summer concerts; Seattle has the Olympic Sculpture Garden, open free to everyone daily; Seattle has a magnificent Downtown Library and 26 Branches; Seattle has free ethnic festivals at the Seattle Center; Seattle has 80 P-Patches available for a modest annual fee; Seattle has free off-leash dog parks and a City Hall with free art exhibits; Seattle has a free shuttle service circulating around downtown. There are other cities that do not have these amenities that we think of, rightly, as Only in Seattle.

One can only conclude: Viva la Difference.