By Rob Perez
Faulty parking meters
finally getting attention
The next time you plop some loose change into an Oahu parking meter, remember the story you're about to read regarding the maddening experience that police officer Dwain Marlowe recently had at Honolulu Airport.
It could save you a few bucks and some grief.
On the night of Dec. 21, Marlowe fed three quarters into an airport meter, thinking the 30 minutes he was supposed to get would be enough time for him to greet his arriving son and make it back to his van before that familiar red flag popped up, signaling a parking violation.
But when Marlowe returned 25 minutes later -- he had set his Rolex watch to keep track of the time -- a sheriff's deputy was just finishing writing him a parking ticket.
Marlowe was ticked.
When the deputy and another one ignored Marlowe's pleas that the meter must be faulty, he got even angrier.
He zipped home, retrieved a tripod, digital video camera, digital timer, portable radio and a lawn chair, and returned to the airport, determined to gather evidence.
Never mind that it was 2 a.m.
In methodical fashion honed from years in law enforcement, Marlowe set up his camera, attached the timer to the meter and taped himself feeding quarters into the one-legged bandit, providing a steady voice-over each step of the way. He kept the camera running as the time ticked away and played the radio to provide continuous background music, another way to show he wasn't manipulating the timing.
Three times he tested the meter. And three times he got different results, with the meter short-changing him on each occasion. Instead of 30 minutes for three quarters, he got 25 minutes in the first test, 15 in the next and 20 in the final one. The theft of time was captured entirely on tape, which he plans to show when he contests the $45 parking ticket at a court hearing this month.
Marlowe, 53, who is on sabbatical from a Virginia police department while his wife serves a tour with the military here, said he isn't fighting the ticket for the money. "It's the principle," he said. "This isn't right."
If Marlowe's experience isn't enough to get you steamed, the tale gets worse.
The meter (No. 12) that short-changed him on the short crossover street near the interisland terminal and the Ewa end of the main terminal wasn't the only one malfunctioning last week.
Of the 15 meters on that street, a popular parking area for motorists not wanting to hassle with security checkpoints elsewhere at the airport, eight weren't working properly when I tested them over several days. Each one cheated me of time at least once.
In the worst case, I paid for 20 minutes and got only 11-and-a-half, leaving a nearly nine-minute gap that could've resulted in an improper citation.
In several instances, I not only didn't get the 20 minutes I paid for but got even less time than what the meter needle indicated. After inserting two quarters at one machine, it showed I would get only 16 minutes. What I actually got was less than 15 -- cheated out of more than five minutes.
At meter No. 1, which fronts the prime stall closest to the main terminal, I had to insert six quarters -- twice the rate stated on the meter -- to get 30 minutes.
The story gets even worse.
Until the Star-Bulletin got involved, no one apparently was paying attention to Marlowe's complaints about the malfunctioning meter.
Although he told the two sheriff's deputies and some airport security people about the problem device and complained nearly three weeks ago to the airport's parking office, run by Ampco Parking System, that meter and several others still were cheating people as of Friday morning.
One woman who wouldn't give her name grumbled that a meter short-changed her Friday just like another one on the same street had cheated her last July.
She said she complained to the parking office in July and was amazed the problem still was prevalent last week.
George Clift, regional vice president for Ampco, which has the airport parking concession and is responsible for maintaining the meters, told the Star-Bulletin Friday afternoon that he was distressed by the newspaper's findings. He said he would immediately have the meters checked and bemoaned the notion that people were overcharged.
"That's just not the way we do it," Clift said. "Our purpose is to make sure (the meters) are as accurate as they possibly can be."
The airport meters normally are checked every other week, Clift said, but he was at a loss to explain what happened in the Marlowe case.
Whatever happened, the case raises questions about the scores of other citations issued regularly at the airport's metered stalls and whether some of those tickets were due to malfunctioning machines.
Marlowe suspects the meters aren't fixed quickly because that generates more revenue from parking fines. He noted that all but one of the 15 vehicles that were parked along the crossover street the night he was ticketed also had citations.
"I think it's a money grab," Marlowe said.
But Clift said meters are pulled for repairs as soon as they are discovered malfunctioning. He also noted that Ampco is not involved with issuing citations and gets no revenue from the parking fines -- that money goes to the state.
The company, however, gets 15 percent of all revenue generated from the airport parking concession, including the coins deposited into meters. (The airport gets the remaining 85 percent).
Davis Yogi, the state airports administrator, said he was unaware of accuracy problems with the meters until the Star-Bulletin called. But he said he planned to raise the issue with Ampco in a meeting this week.
Faulty meters are not a problem only at the airport.
The city government, which is responsible for nearly 4,800 meters along city roadways and in municipal parking lots on Oahu, typically gets 300-plus complaints a year about malfunctioning meters.
Of those complaints, roughly 40 percent usually are determined to be legitimate, said Ron Shimabukuro, supervisor of the Honolulu Police Department's parking-meter repair section.
In a random testing of nearly two dozen city meters from Kalihi to Waikiki, I found none that short-changed me.
The city tries to inspect and do maintenance on each of its 4,800 meters at least once a year, and any suspected of having problems is pulled from the field for testing, Shimabukuro said. Most malfunctions usually involve mechanical meters (the same kind that are at the airport) because those meters are older and have moving parts, unlike the digital devices that the city and state have been switching to. About half the city meters are digital.
While the city collects roughly $4 million a year in meter revenue, the take the state gets from parking fines is much greater, usually well over $20 million annually.
Given the stakes involved, the Marlowe case underscores why people should keep close tabs on the clock whenever using a parking meter, especially the mechanical kind.
If you dash back to your car and there's a ticket on your windshield before the time should have expired, you can write a letter to the court explaining the circumstances and enclose it in the ticket envelope.
If authorities determine the meter was faulty, you could be off the hook -- and not out the $30 fine typical for most parking violations.
Star-Bulletin columnist Rob Perez writes on issues
and events affecting Hawaii. Fax 529-4750, or write to
Honolulu Star-Bulletin, 500 Ala Moana Blvd., No. 7-210,
Honolulu 96813. He can also be reached
by e-mail at: email@example.com.