December 4, 2012

A Brief, Recent History on Parking Meters in Syracuse

Coin-operated meters along Pearl Street, pictured here in 2007.

In an effort to put all of this information onto one page, the following is a brief summary of Syracuse's parking meter fiasco from 2000 to 2012.

2000: Utica, NY resident, Ronald Mancuso, begins to conspire with then Loomis employee, Sean McGuigan of Syracuse, to steal coins from Syracuse's coin-operated parking meters. Mancuso drives to Syracuse to pick up the coins that McGuigan is supposed to deposit into a city account. The coins are then brought back to Utica by Mancuso and exchanged for cash at area banks, where Mancuso tells bank tellers they come from vending machines [1].

2003: The city begins to replace their single space, coin-operated machines with "DG Classic" electronic parking meters from supplier, Parkeon Inc. The first neighborhood to have the new machines is Armory Square. The city also begins to "behead" their older, coin-operated machines; a tactic that would continue for several years where the meter head is removed but the metal pole is still left sticking out of the ground.

2005: Mancuso and McGuigan's scheme has begun to wind down. In all, they've managed to steal $700,000 in quarters, dimes, and nickels from the city over a five-year span. As it continues to replace them, the city remains under the impression that the older machines are purely broken. Meanwhile, after noticing a decrease in amount of coins they're able to steal, Mancuso and McGuigan begin to purposely jam the new electronic machines using a liquid salt solution, in an effort that the city would revert back to the original machines once they realized that they were spending too much money on repairs [1].

2006: Downtown TNT (in partnership with the Downtown Committee and Cultural Resources Council) begins the Totem Project; an artistic effort to beautify the headless meters around Downtown. The project expands to other parts of the city the following year with help from the 40 Below Public Arts Task Force and the Gifford Foundation.

October 2009: The city becomes aware of Ronald Mancuso and Sean McGuigan's parking scheme. Their names are tipped off by the FBI, after Mancuso's brothers, Paul and Steven, were found guilty in a trial of conspiring to violate federal asbestos regulations in Utica [1].

2010: Parkeon informs the city that it would no longer manufacture replacement parts for it's DG Classic pay stations and recommends their "Strada BNA", which accepts dollar bills, has multilingual capabilities, and includes a "maximum pay" button that allows motorists to quickly purchase the max time allowed (instead of requiring them to press a button several times for each increment like that on the DG Classic model) [2].

January 2010: The Syracuse Common Council approves a plan to add credit card devices to existing DG Classic meters, as well as to increase on-street parking from 75 cents an hour to $1.25 an hour [3].

2012: 37% of city motorists who pay for on-street parking are utilizing the credit card feature on the meters. The electronic meters are also bringing an additional $400,000 in revenue [4] to the city over the older, coin-operated meters.*

January 2012: A federal judge dismisses a civil lawsuit by the city of Syracuse against Loomis because the statue of limitations expired [5].

April 2012: Parkeon Inc informs DPW Commissioner, Pete O'Connor, that the wireless data connection used by 270 of the city's electronic parking meters is set to go dead by the end of the month. The current DG Classic machines would still be able to take coins, but their credit card feature would be inoperable [2].

September 2012: Parkeon again informs O'Connor of a wireless shutdown that will happen, this time by November. (At this point, adding a new mobile communications network into the Strada BNA machines would have cost $370,000, but the parking stations that the city has bought and updated over the past decade, the DG Classics, are now out-of-date and also contain hazardous lead) [2].

September 24, 2012: After voting down a plan earlier in the month, The Syracuse Common Council unanimously votes to spend up to $2.54 million in replacing the 270 city parking meters over a three-year period, authorizing $848,000 for the first 90 meters. Pete O'Connor also recommends that the city replace its remaining 288 single space, coin-operated meters with electronic meters. The council does not expect to recieve a response for 6 to 8 weeks [6].

November 29, 2012: The DPW receives five bid proposals for replacement meters [7].


What a clusterfuck. Communication problems (both literally and figuratively), technology issues, public arts trying to help, the city not collecting money properly, the city not spending money properly, etc...

I generally don't subscribe to the LOLSyracuse or SorryCuse or SewerCuse memes and designations. You know... where no matter what happens, it's always "poor, poor Syracuse.". Actually, I get really offended when people use "SorryCuse" as a way to make their point. But that all being said, the city really came off like a SorryCuse and botched this one across the board in several different aspects over a span of twelve years. It's actually kind of ridiculous when you look at it all at once.

My only hope is that the city never goes through something as stupid as this ever again. Here are four points that I take away from this huge mess...

1) The city needed to take better care of its finances. Writing something off as "broken machines" when something is in fact thievery is a major discrepancy. Granted it was 2005, and Syracuse was in a different position back then from where it is now. But in a city that has had little money and at a point when it needed to be very fiscally responsible about anything falling through the cracks, dismissing $700,000 is kind of a huge deal.

2) The electronic machines that the city installed in 2003 ended up costing them more money over the long-run: they had to replace the coin meters, upgrade the electronic meter panels, and then replace the electronic meters altogether. The city was notified once in 2010 about outdated machines, it was then notified again in early 2012 about a possible network failure, and yet it did nothing except bumble along. Hindsight is always 20/20, but if Syracuse hadn't gotten the cheapest version installed to begin with, this problem probably never would've happened. In Boston, they got it right the first time. In 2006, their single space parking meters were replaced with 1,000 Parkeon solar-powered Strada BNA machines over the course of 3 years at a cost of $10 million. The meters are still in use today.**

3) I'm a very big advocate of the arts, but only when it's done so in a humanizing way. The Totem Project (i.e. dressing up beheaded parking meters) failed to do this. Like countless other projects and developments around Syracuse where people end up shaking there heads afterwards, it's done so with good intentions, but in the end had poor results. It was like trying to spruce up something that was already an embarrassment to the public perception in regards to improper planning and execution. The art itself is fine. In some cases beautiful. But it misses the overall mark in three key ways. One, it almost celebrates the fact that the city has no money. Two, in a city that can't afford to look more defeated than it already is, it actually boasts the fact that it's made poor planning decisions. And three, it puts more jumbled unorganization onto the sidewalks (thereby making the already messy Downtown street less tidy). Again, good intentions, but poor results. All the city had to do originally was file the poles down to ground-level and fill them in with a dab of concrete and that would've been an upgrade. I mean, really. How difficult would this have been? Oh and as of this writing, there are STILL headless poles scattered throughout the city and around Downtown.

4) From an aesthetic point of view, I'm partial to the older, coin-operated machines. I don't really know why, but there's just something a little more nostalgic and a little less corporate about them. Plus, I actually enjoy carrying coin currency around (I'm probably in the minority on that one). While I don't necessarily mind the idea of electronic meters, I really wish Syracuse's current electronic parking meters weren't so obtrusive and clunky. When the new machines are installed or what company the DPW decides to go with or what they'll look like is anybody's guess.

As an FYI, the "DG" machines are still taking credit cards as of this writing - that is until Velocita, the company overseeing the fate of the wireless data, decides to pull the plug. For now, the city is loaning 180 parking modems from Parkeon so most of the machines will still be able to accept credit cards. But mind you, wireless data also represents the pay station's coin intake (to prevent theft) as well as a way to monitor maintenance. So until then, who the hell knows what will happen. We could wind up back at square one with yet another coin-stealing scheme, twiddling our thumbs until the new machines arrive.


*This is most likely due to how often a motorist overpays for a spot with an electronic machine, as oppose to a coin-operated one. There's also less hoarding with the newer machines, a tactic where motorists park in one on-street spot all day and continue to re-fill the meter. While still possible, the electronic machines diminish this abuse.

** It's nice for Boston, but I'm not so sure how a solar-powered anything would function properly here.