Seattle's confusing parking meters: Pay to 6 p.m., get towed at 3
Seattle drivers can pay to park on First Avenue until 6 p.m. But just before 3, tow trucks start swarming, ready to yank the cars as soon as they're ticketed.
Seattle Times staff reporter
"I'd be out there waving, 'Oh my God, don't park here, you're going to get towed,' " he said about the drivers, many of whom were tourists heading for Pike Place Market.
But he couldn't warn everybody and after two weeks working at Polite Society, a clothing store that recently closed, Fuglevand said he gave up — and the tow trucks just kept coming every afternoon.
Confused tourists would come into his store asking: "I'm from out of town. Do you know where my car is?"
While signs posted next to the First Avenue pay stations warn drivers they'll be towed if parked during the busy morning and evening commute hours (6-9 a.m. and 3-6 p.m.), plenty of drivers overlook them.
Many merchants on this block believe tourists or those simply unfamiliar with downtown streets are being hit the hardest by the tows, thanks in part to pay stations that allow drivers to purchase parking through 6 p.m., despite signs that say otherwise.
Merideth Meador, a bookkeeper at a First Avenue architecture book and supply shop, has seen it all before.
"They like to say, 'Well, I put my money in. That means I should be fine.' We have to explain to them that that's not necessarily true," she said.
Seattle transportation officials say pay stations — introduced in 2004 as the city began phasing out coin-operated parking meters — were designed to give drivers the convenience of using their receipts to park elsewhere if there are other hourly restrictions.
Pay stations have lowered maintenance costs, break down less often and allow drivers to use several forms of payment, said Rick Sheridan, spokesman for the Department of Transportation.
Along with street signs, an electronic message says "See signs for restricted hours" when a pay station is "awakened" for a transaction.
Sheridan said pay stations theoretically could be reprogrammed to stop accepting payment at a certain time, depending on when tow-away zones are enforced on different streets.
But, he added, "that would make them lose their convenience factor."
But Micah DeNunzio, a chef at Pioneer Square's Cafe Bengodi, has a different perspective on the pay stations.
"People need to open up their eyes, yes, but if those spots aren't meant to be parked in, don't let them pay for it," said DeNunzio, who says the parade of tow trucks is a daily routine.
Costs add up quickly
On a typical weekday, the first in a fleet of tow trucks pulls up and parks in the 1900 block of First Avenue at about 2:50 p.m. Within minutes, more trucks arrive in anticipation.
Ten minutes later, parking- enforcement officers arrive, some on electric scooters, and begin to issue $35 parking tickets to all vehicles still parked there.
After a car is ticketed, the tow-truck drivers are free to move in.
One driver said up to 10 cars are impounded from that block on any given day. He didn't want to be named.
Drivers whose cars are towed from First Avenue during peak hours are charged $101 by Lincoln Towing, the company the city contracts with, and $15 by the city to help pay for administration of towing contracts. After sales tax, the total comes to $125.60, according to Katherine Schubert-Knapp, a spokeswoman for the city's Department of Finance.
That's on top of the $35 parking ticket issued earlier. And don't forget the $15 cab ride to Lincoln's University District impound lot. Total damage: $175.60.
They don't waste time
On a recent afternoon, Tim Ormonde, a cook at Sonya's Bar & Grill, looked on as a tow-truck driver began hooking up a car before an officer had finished writing the parking ticket.
"They've got it down to a science," Ormonde said.
William Edwards, the Seattle Police Department's director of parking enforcement, said tow-truck drivers need to begin towing as close to 3 p.m. as possible so they can make more than one trip before gridlock builds.
"We don't like impounding vehicles," he said.
First Avenue merchants are in agreement — they don't like it, either.
About six weeks ago, Ormonde saw a pest-control vehicle parked on the street. He was able to contact the driver before the tow trucks came because a phone number was listed on the car.
"It's almost like Robin Hood, where everyone around here is like 'Don't park here. Don't park here. You're going to get towed,' " Ormonde said.
While not a tourist, driver Darren Mohr recently moved to Seattle from Idaho. He parked his Mercedes on First Avenue on a Friday afternoon and paid to park until 3:35 p.m. He even set an alarm on his watch as a reminder.
Naturally, Mohr was surprised to find his car missing when he returned. His coupe was one of about a half-dozen cars impounded on the block.
"The signs are so small," Mohr said. "If I had seen them, I wouldn't have parked there."
At least three other cars towed nearby belonged to drivers who had paid to park past 3 p.m. — a Honda Pilot, with parking purchased through 4:16 p.m.; a Volkswagen Beetle, parking purchased through 4:17 p.m.; a Toyota Camry, parking purchased through 3:28 p.m.
"It strikes me as really predatory," said Fuglevand, watching from across the street as Mohr and two friends tried to figure out how they all missed the signs.
And many merchants are left to wonder why an area so reliant on tourism makes parking so difficult for the very people who drive its businesses.
"You'd think if you didn't want people parking there," Fuglevand said, "you'd let them know as loudly as possible: 'Don't park here during these hours.' "
Maks Goldenshteyn: 206-464-2374 or email@example.com
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