Parking meter revenue in Charleston more than tripled after the city doubled the price and eliminated free evening parking in an effort to free up spaces and raise money.
For those who work at night on the peninsula, and for visitors planning to dine or see a show, it's been an expensive change.
Under the old rules, prior to mid-April 2018, parking meters were free after 6 p.m. Workers, visitors and residents could find a meter, pay a dollar an hour until 6 p.m., then park free for hours more or potentially all night.
The price was doubled to $2 per hour, but the more important rule change was extending the time meters had to be paid until 10 p.m. That meant hospitality and restaurant workers, and some residents, could no longer claim a metered space for the night at little or no cost.
The combination resulted in soaring parking meter revenue for the city, far more than projected.
Charleston collected $1.45 million in meter money in 2017, and $3.93 million in 2018, although the rule and price changes were only in effect for part of the year. Parking meters generated $918,118 more than the city budgeted last year, and Charleston expects to collect even more in 2019.
“We were pretty conservative with (the budget estimate)," said Amy Wharton, the city's chief financial officer. "We tend to do that until we are sure how it will work out."
The city also collected $3.43 million in 2018 from parking violations, and more than $19 million from city-owned parking garages and lots. Wharton said one reason more money was collected from parking violations is that the city has been more aggressive in pursuing fines owed by people who live in other states.
“It’s more efficient now with software and license plates," Wharton said. “We had some pretty old (unpaid) parking tickets, and a lot of them were out-of-state."
Business owners, who want customers to be able to find on-street parking easily, prompted some of the city's rule changes and particularly the end of free parking after 6 p.m. The doubling of the meter price was seen as a way to raise money, instead of increasing the city's property tax, to fund ongoing operations and rising state-mandated contributions to employee pension funds.
Mickey Bakst, general manager of Charleston Grill, can see both sides of the issue.
“From the business person’s perspective, having more available parking is always a great thing," he said. “For people who want to park close to work and be able to walk to their cars fairly quickly, it’s a burden."
"It has made parking for employees increasingly difficult," said Baskt. “A lot of people (in the food and beverage industry) are saying it’s easier to work in Mount Pleasant or on Johns Island."
There are no parking meters in Mount Pleasant or on Johns Island.
Charleston's parking meter rule and rate changes followed another big change in peninsular parking: the replacement of all the roughly 1,700 parking meter heads in the city. The new meters take credit and debit cards, as well as coins, and are wirelessly connected so that the city can monitor them.
Julian and Polly Buxton pulled up to one of the new meters on King Street near Calhoun Street on Thursday afternoon. Finding the space was easy, but paying the meter was a different story.
Julian Buxton tried to buy time on the meter repeatedly before giving up.
"I tried four different (credit) cards," he said. "Now I'll have to take a chance on a $14 ticket."
Polly Buxton, who with Julian co-owns Buxton Books on Cumberland Street, said that on a recent evening she went to a community meeting at Grace Church. It was dark and raining, and she thought she had bought two hours of time on a parking meter, but apparently her credit card didn't register.
"It's anti-commerce and anti-community," she said, reflecting on the two $14 parking tickets that awaited her when she left the church.
City officials said there have been few problems with the new parking meters, with no more than two percent of them breaking down monthly. If someone gets a ticket, they can appeal by going to the city offices at 180 Lockwood Blvd., Monday or Tuesday from 4:30 p.m. to 6 p.m., or Wednesday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. If a ticket were due to a credit card reading error, the city can tell that happened, according to the city.
"We have not been having the issues we were having with the old meters," said Keith Benjamin, director of Charleston's Department of Traffic and Transportation. “Now that we have the new meter heads in place, we get immediate notification when one is not functioning."
The city is also able to make changes remotely, and did so following complaints that a two-hour limit on parking meters was not long enough for visitors who wanted to dine and shop in the evening.
Now, many of the downtown meters allow parking for up to three hours after 6 p.m.
Benjamin said the city plans to do more to help residents, workers and visitors understand where parking exists on the peninsula and the rules that apply.
“You want to make it easier for people to park, not harder," he said.