A brutal winter storm that brought heavy rain, a little snow, a lot of sleet and frigid temperatures to Portland proved to be more than the city’s new solar-powered parking kiosks could handle.
The storm disabled 10 of the 55 pay station terminals in downtown Portland, freezing them and making it impossible, at least for part of Thursday, for drivers to pay for their parking spaces.
Though temperatures remained in the 18- to 20-degree range for most of the day, a harsh wind made it feel like it was between zero and 5 degrees. And the storm, which began Wednesday afternoon, had dumped nearly an inch of rain on Portland.
“There are some (terminals) that are frozen,” Jessica Grondin, a city spokeswoman, said early Thursday. “The parking supervisor is going around with a heat gun to thaw them out.”
Grondin said pay stations on Exchange, Market and Middle streets froze Thursday morning and were displaying an “out of order” message.
Grondin said it was the second time that the pay stations, which cost a total of $465,000, have frozen. Two pay stations froze in a storm at the end of December.
It took only about a minute for the meters to be thawed with the heat gun, which resembles a hand-held hair dryer, said John Peverada, Portland’s parking manager.
He said that even the old coin-operated parking meters froze occasionally.
“We imagined from time to time, in this climate, there would be issues we’d have to deal with. It’s all the way the wind blows and the type of snow,” Peverada said.
The pay stations, which have begun to replace the traditional coin-only parking meters, accept coins, debit cards and credit cards. Peverada said Portland started installing them last fall because they create a cleaner streetscape, promote easier snow removal and may allow more vehicles along the curb.
Grondin said the terminals fare pretty well in the snow and cold, but not in freezing rain – something that parking officials in Portland, Ore., have also found.
Both Portlands have pay stations from the same manufacturer, Cale America Inc., based in Tampa, Fla. The one in Oregon started installing them in 2005.
Steve Herboth, parking operations supervisor in Portland, Ore., said his city operates more than 1,300 pay stations, and some have frozen – typically when freezing temperatures have followed heavy rain.
“But it doesn’t happen very often,” he said.
Herboth said his city has bought several hair dryers, equipped with rechargeable batteries, to solve the problem. Whenever there is freezing, his crews take to the streets, armed with the hair dryers.
“They work great,” he said.
Sometimes, the buttons that a driver pushes on the face of the terminal to enter the parking time freeze. Other times, snow or moisture gets inside the solar panel and disables the unit.
Jeff Nethery, Cale America’s manager of business development, said the company has installed more than 20,000 pay terminals in the United States and Canada, and about 13,000 are operating in harsh northern climates such as Montreal, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh and Chicago.
After being told what happened in Portland on Thursday, he said, “I know this can happen, but it’s not common.”
Nethery said he has been told that during extreme weather, the pay terminals can become completely iced over, but for the most part they have performed well.
Drivers in downtown Portland on Thursday night gave the pay stations mixed reviews.
“I’ve never had any issues,” said Ashley Scarr of Portland, who had just parked her car on Market Street.
Scarr said she doesn’t mind slipping a credit card into the station to make a payment, though she prefers the old coin-operated meters.
Jordan Conerty, who lives in Chicago, said he doesn’t like the automated parking meters. Conerty, a graduate student at Yale Divinity School, said he doesn’t trust the technology.
“There is too much wiring in there and too much that could go wrong,” he said after parking his car on Middle Street.
The machine reacted by refusing to give his girlfriend, Sara Ryan, a parking ticket.
“It’s not registering the time,” said Ryan, a graduate student at Seton Hall University.
After several attempts, the machine finally spewed out a ticket. Ryan and Conerty, who were visiting Maine for the first time, took off for dinner at Bull Feeney’s in the Old Port.
Jackie Lovell, a manager at Videoport on Middle Street, said many of his customers don’t like the fact that they can’t move into a parking space and use whatever time might be left if the space had a coin-only meter.
“I haven’t heard any positive feedback about the machines,” Lovell said. “But I suppose the convenience of using a credit card can’t be all bad.”
Staff Writer Randy Billings contributed to this report.
Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at: