Seattle to give parking violators the boot
Seattle is planning to order license-plate-recognition devices and high-tech tire immobilizers next year, to fuel a crackdown on so-called "scofflaws" who have at least four unpaid tickets.
Seattle Times transportation reporter
How it would workUse a database: Municipal Court would maintain a list of vehicles with at least four unpaid parking tickets.
Find scofflaws: Two parking-enforcement vehicles would scan plates; an officer would boot a car when located.
Settling up: The car's owner would call in, pay fines, receive a code to unlock the boot, then return the device.
Racking up unpaid parking fines?
Seattle wants to give you the boot.
The city plans to order license-plate-recognition devices and high-tech tire immobilizers next year to fuel a crackdown on so-called "scofflaws" who have at least four unpaid tickets.
Cars may be booted not only in busy commercial districts but on the back street next to your house.
The roundup is expected to collect $1.1 million in 2011 and $1.8 million in 2012 after expenses. The city expects some spooked drivers to send money right before the crackdown.
The new enforcement requires City Council approval of Mayor Mike McGinn's budget and of a change in municipal codes this fall.
Here's how it would work, according to Tim Killian, McGinn's senior adviser:
Seattle Municipal Court would maintain a scofflaw database, expected to number 27,000 vehicles.
Two parking-enforcement vehicles would be equipped with plate-recognition cameras linked to a court database, so an alarm would be triggered when a scofflaw vehicle is passed.
The officer would stop, fasten a boot to one tire and place a notice on the windshield.
When the motorist returns, he or she would call a toll-free number and supply a credit-card number to pay the fines.
After paying up, the driver would be given a code to punch into a keypad on the boot, releasing it. If that doesn't happen within 48 hours of booting, the car could be towed. The boot, weighing 16 pounds and worth about $500, would have to be returned to one of multiple drop-off locations, or further penalties or a theft charge would occur.
Mayor defends stance
McGinn has insisted at recent news conferences that his new parking plans, including an increase in the top meter fee to $4 an hour, is not a green conspiracy against car users. Instead, he says, the goal is a more brisk turnover of on-street parking spaces, so that one-eighth are unoccupied — thus encouraging short stops at retail stores.
And, of course, to raise money.
The city already tows some vehicles with overdue fines, but they have to be parked illegally, and may be recovered if the drivers pay the impound costs, not the parking fines.
Like other cities, Seattle is acknowledging that the traditional paper chase of citations, bills and Municipal Court filings isn't all that efficient.
"Our experience with many of the people on the scofflaw list is they ... simply ignore the collection letter, continue to park illegally and rack up parking tickets," Killian said.
Parking fines are expected to bring in $21 million this year, based on about 500,000 tickets, and $25 million next year, budgets say.
Even before penalties, the parking meters and pay stations are lucrative — a projected $27 million for 2010. An additional $22 million comes from commercial parking taxes on off-street lots. Those taxes likely will increase next year.
On the streets of the University District last week, salesman Tristan Lawrence, a cigar-company rep new to Seattle, wondered if he'll get a boot someday.
"I've been pretty good about it," he said, "but that seems pretty intense."
He said it's easy for someone like him to run up tickets, since he expects to park in pay spaces three or four times a day.
Peter Davis, a self-employed builder, said it's fine for the city to pursue people who avoid tickets — "if it helps reduce the cost for us people who pay on time."
The income goes into the city general fund, as opposed to directly reducing transportation taxes and fees.
Used in 14 cities
A contract hasn't been awarded, but a New Jersey company has a patent for its boot and call-center technology.
A total of 14 cities, including Denver, New Orleans, Baltimore and Syracuse, N.Y., operate systems by PayLock. The company runs a 24-hour call center and says drivers can be mobile again in five minutes. President Cory Marchasin says operators have patched in conference calls nationwide, and even to Russia, so drivers could cobble together payment sources from multiple cards and friends. "The record is 27," he said.
During talks in Seattle, Marchasin said, he was struck that city staffers were open to allowing payment plans — quite different from what he called the predator-prey model in some cities' parking divisions.
Oakland, Calif., launched its "Smart Boot" initiative last November, expecting to collect $800,000 a year — but the city found that many of the 68,000 vehicles in arrears are no longer on the road.
Plate-reader technologies already have made inroads for other uses in Seattle and the suburbs.
Red-light cameras are proliferating.
In addition, one police cruiser in each Seattle precinct already can scan a roadside or parking lot for stolen cars, either for a car-theft investigation or as surveillance during routine patrols.
There are five license-plate cameras on patrol cars and one in parking enforcement, Sgt. Sean Whitcomb said. The parking-enforcement vehicle already has been linked to the scofflaw database and also will be used for enforcement once the boots arrive, said Aaron Pickus, McGinn's spokesman.
The state Department of Transportation has installed license-plate-recognition cameras on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge and will do so on the Highway 520 floating bridge next year, to bill drivers who lack a "Good to Go" debit transponder in the windshield.
And just Monday, Seattle turned on five traffic-information signs that rely on license-plate photos. Pictures are taken, for instance, as cars pass 35th Avenue Southwest and Southwest Avalon Way, clicked again as cars approach Interstate 5 at Tully's, and then the average elapsed times are displayed back on the sign at 35th.
No, traffic engineers will not be linking those cameras to the parking-scofflaw database.
Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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