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CCDC's $1.9 Million Parking Garage Gamble

Agency is counting on more automation, less staff to increase revenue, pay back investment in 3.5 years

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Boise's downtown parking garages haven't changed much since the 1980s. Parking attendant Brandon Johnson says the equipment is older than he is.

"They literally don't make the parts for that machine any more," he said, pointing to an aged piece of payment processing equipment--one of the many moving parts that keep the garage humming. "It's jerry-rig, jerry-rig, jerry-rig."

Johnson admits the Downtown Public Parking System, a network of garages with more than 2,500 stalls owned and administered by the Capital City Development Corporation, could use an overhaul.

But Johnson's fellow parking attendants said the bottom line of the $1.9 million being spent to upgrade the garages to automation, including ATM-like kiosks replacing traditional booths, will mean that some of the attendants will be out of a job.

"[CCDC] said the new system is designed to work with 'minimal staff'; that was their term," said Johnson.

Johnson's not too worried--he starts a new job (with a raise) at Cabela's soon.

"A couple of people were worried, but they said... [some] people gotta stay around to keep the machines running," said Johnson. "It'll be a change for those sticking around."

A number of parking attendants, including one who said he'd worked with DPPS for seven years, said they wouldn't talk on the record regarding the automation. Another cited concern his job would be in jeopardy if he commented on the plan.

Maggie Lee--an attendant at the Myrtle Street Garage and a parking system employee since April 2012--said she's not as concerned, mainly because she already holds down a second job.

"But a lot of other people don't, and they've been here 10 years," said Lee. "They don't know what else to do, you know?"

If all goes according to plan, by spring 2014 CCDC will do away with parking attendant booths entirely, replacing them with a machine similar to an ATM, built by international automated systems firm Scheidt & Bachmann.

Max Clark, CCDC's Parking and Facilities director, sold the urban renewal agency's commissioners on the $1.9 million revamp and replacement of the garage payment system, creatively dubbed PARCS (Parking Access Revenue Control System), at the board's June 10 meeting.

Rather than spend $900,000 to replace 1980s hardware, held together with "duct tape and baling wire," Clark said CCDC should invest $1.9 million to fully automate the system.

Clark told BW that a smaller staff will work not in attendant booths, but on foot, roving the garages as so-called "parking ambassadors." Staffing will likely drop from 35 full-time employees to approximately 15-20.

"For the first year, there's virtually no reduction," said Troy Harris, DPPS general manager. "Then we'll look at phased reductions."

Clark told BW that he wants to avoid a scenario of simply "throwing up the machines, putting up a few signs and hoping that the customers get it."

In the first year, budget savings ($99,540) and "revenue enhancements" in the form of increased garage use ($98,839), should save a combined $198,379, according to Clark. He estimated bigger savings in the second year ($296,489) and each of the following years ($346,758). The return on investment, according to Clark, is three and a half years.

"The reality is, the cashier sits in a booth eight hours a day," said Clark. "They're busy for about two hours a day, and for six hours a day, they're sitting there reading a book, listening to an iPod or doing their homework."

Once PARCS is installed, the garages will operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Currently, much of the system doesn't open on Sundays. While many motorists choose free on-street parking, Clark said that even those drivers who might want to choose a garage can't because they're unusable without an attendant in the booth. For example, Clark said, the Eastman Garage could be open for business on Sundays with the new PARCs system.

"We could staff it, but I was losing $65,000 a year trying to staff it on Sundays. When it's automated, it will be available 24/7," he said.

With the new system, drivers will be prompted to walk up to one of six electronic machines located around the garage and pay for their time before hopping in their car.

"When a customer sits in the car and pays a cashier, that transaction takes 30-45 seconds. But, Harris said, with the PARCS system customers can exit in as little as five seconds.

"You're not sitting down creeping through a queue for 45 minutes, in your car, burning fuel," said Clark. "The idea is you pay for your parking; you get 20 minutes to get out, and 98 percent of the time you're going to make it out in 20 minutes."

Parking ambassadors will assist customers with the machines and, equipped with smartphones, they'll be alerted to problems with equipment by an attendant working in a round-the-clock parking office.

Harris said the upgrade will also soon help motorists determine the best garage to park in, sending out up-to-the-minute data on the number of stalls available at each location.

"The equipment will give real-time occupancy counts for each garage," he said. "We'll be looking at installing some new signage over the next couple of years. Imagine driving down Main Street and you'll see that the Eastman Garage will have 300 stalls available."

Once installed, the system will mean less down time for parking attendants like Johnson and Lee. Until then, during the slow periods, Lee reads, while Johnson works on his skills playing video games on his new laptop. It's policy to let staff find things to do.

"They allow that," said Johnson, "because they learned that when you don't let the employees do anything, they go stir crazy."

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