Solar-powered parking meters break down

A new solar-powered parking-meter experiment in North Beach that is meant to encourage more drivers to pay was doing just the opposite Wednesday when two of the four ticket machines broke down and drivers parked for free.

Meanwhile, business owners complained that the system was causing confused motorists to drive away and go elsewhere.

The Department of Parking and Traffic launched a three-month pilot program last week to test four solar-powered, multispace parking meters on one block of Columbus Avenue between Union and Green streets.

The City removed the former coin and parking-pass operated meters in the busy tourist district and installed four new meters for the entire block. The high-tech machines are powered by the sun, accept coins, bills and credit cards, and are connected to an Internet program that keeps track of how much time each of the 40 spots have left.

The system also tracks spots that are vacant through sensors on the ground, which allows parking-control officers to determine when a driver has not paid.

Officers keep track of the information, which updates every 30 seconds, on handheld BlackBerrys. The idea is for officers to save time by checking meter compliance on the mobile devices.

At least that’s the idea. On Wednesday, the Internet program transmitted false information on which vehicles were in compliance. At one point, the program said 32 of the 40 spots were empty, even though the block was full.

Three parking-control officers assigned to the program struggled to enforce meter compliance after the system went awry, directing confused drivers to the working machines and explaining that the problem was caused by bugs in the system.

“This is a process to generate revenue, technically,” said one officer, who didn’t want to be named. “And it’s not going to work.”

Keith Ta, of San Francisco, used one of the working machines, but grumbled about the system meltdown.

“The City was saying they’re losing revenue on these things, but they have a group of employees out here trying to fix it,” Ta said.

One merchant on the block said her business had suffered because the machines are confusing people, who then park elsewhere.

arocha@examiner.com

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