Crazy Idea #2: Smart meters!

Note: This is the second installment of Eight Crazy Ideas for ’08, a multi-part posting that is looking at ideas, big and small, that could improve our community in Belmont.

In the first installment, I talked about introducing a resident parking permit program to help alleviate the tension between residents and non-residents on streets that are adjacent to shopping areas and municipal lots. Crazy Idea #2 returns to the parking dilemma by proposing the reintroduction of (smart) parking meters in the town’s main shopping districts: Leonard Street and along Trapelo Road.

As many of you know, meters were removed a few years back because, among other reasons, they were perceived as unsightly. That’s all well and good — and I’m certainly not going to argue that the old coin-op meters weren’t ugly or a hassle for shoppers. They were. But a couple things have changed since then that make reintroduction of meters a good idea.

What’s changed? First and foremost: the town’s finances. As the most recent Warrant Committee report warns:

The basic dilemma facing Belmont is that expenses are growing much faster than revenues. Because of Proposition 2 ½, the allowed increase in property taxes in FY2007 is $1.36 million. Cost increases required for “level services” budgets for town services are $3.76 million, and the gap is widening. By Fiscal 2008, increases in health insurance and retirement benefits alone will exceed allowable tax increases.

Add to that an estimated $121.6 million in unfunded liabilities for retiree health insurance and life insurance, $40 million or so in deferred road maintenance, a new elementary school…and the luxury of free parking in Belmont’s commercial districts is too simply too rich for our blood.

We wouldn’t be alone in this. No less a town than Wellesley, with vibrant downtown shopping districts and fully funded pensions for town employees, aggressively uses meters (and the old fashioned kind, at that) throughout its downtown shopping areas and municipal lots. Would that Belmont had the luxury to turn its nose up at a nice stream of dimes, quarters and dollars from parking meters (not to mention the increased ticket revenue from expired meters). We don’t.

The other thing that has changed, of course, is the parking meters, themselves. The old coin op meters were ugly, dumb and numerous — one to a spot. The town currently uses multi-spot meters in the municipal lots on Claflin and in Cushing Square. Newer, multi-spot meters can accept payment in change, paper bills, credit cards — even via cell phones and SMS. Smart meters can even detect when cars have left a spot, and automatically zero out the balance on the meter to prevent double dipping. Two or three of these multi spot meters could cover Leonard Street and they could be stationed along Trapelo Road in a way that wouldn’t be unsightly, and that would create a considerable, new revenue stream for the town.

Multi-space smart meter

Why not 12 hour meters for areas of Trapelo Road near #73 bus stops and the Commuter Rail, too? Folks are using these areas of town to park and ride into Cambridge or North Station as it stands. We might as well get paid for it! We all love to hate parking meters (and the parking attendants who service them), but when it comes to finding a way to fund the town’s continued operations and growth, it’s time for Belmont and the meter maid to kiss and make up!