Smart meters to be tested in downtown Champaign

Parking in downtown Champaign can now be paid for with credit or debit cards or change due to 37 “smart meters” installed along Walnut and Chester streets. They are part of a $5,500 pilot program that will end in April.

Patti Anderson, coordinator for the project and management analyst, said installing the machines was a relatively inexpensive measure for the city. The smart meter vendor, IPS Group, Inc., has provided the meters at no charge for 90 days as part of the trial project.

Anderson said she sees the new meters as a customer service for the city.

“The cost of parking has gone up the past several years, so it is difficult to keep that much change in your car,” Anderson said. “Credit and debit cards seem to be what people are using for most of their services.”

Anderson said she chose the locations for the trials because they experience high traffic and frequent parking.

When the trial period ends, Champaign’s public works department will present a report to the city council.

Anderson said she will be looking for public input in order to gauge the success of the meters based on an online six-question survey .

So far, Anderson said the public input she has received has been positive.

Champaign resident Ashley Malin said she has used similar meters in New York City and Ann Arbor, Mich., and was excited to see them in Champaign.

“They’re really convenient because you don’t have to dig for change,” Malin said. “It’s nice to be able to just slip your card in there since it’s something you always have.”

Although the meters offer an alternative to change, Malin said she also sees a downside to the increased use of credit and debit cards.

“It could be a lot of unnecessary small charges on your card,” Malin said. “And the city issued meter keys, and there’s no place for them on the new machine.”

Malin was referring to CashKeys, pre-paid programmable keys issued by the city that can be used as an alternative to change. These CashKeys are accepted in Champaign, Urbana and the University district and are still usable at existing meters.

The smart meters do not accept CashKeys. Anderson said she does not think the city will replace all of the meters with smart meters due to budget constraints.

Robert Laible, owner of Robert’s Jewelry Store, 28 E. Chester St., said he still plans on sticking to coins.

“I rarely use my credit card for anything,” Laible said.

Anderson said if the meters are received positively in the spring, 39 other meters could be installed in downtown Champaign and 100 other meters in the core of Campustown. The replacement and installation of 176 meters, which includes the 37 trial meters, would cost the city $130,000 in its first year of operation, in addition to an annual $20,768 each following year.