A new wireless, solar-powered automated payment system has made paying for parking considerably easier at San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport in California.

Online since March 15, customers now park their cars, visit a kiosk and can pay using a credit card or cash. The system transmits data via a Wi-Fi connection that is monitored by airport staff.

Previously those using short-term parking had to use manual coin meters, while long-term parking required a person to fill out a permit and put their payment in a drop box.

According to Richard Howell, general manager of the airport, the modernization was a long time coming.

He said that a master plan was in place since the mid-2000s to build a new parking structure with an automated payment system. But the economic downturn in 2008 foiled those plans and an alternate strategy was created to improve existing parking in incremental stages.

Initially airport officials looked at a typical swing-arm system where a driver would pull a parking ticket, the arm would lift, and a customer could park and pay later at a drive-up kiosk when leaving the facility. But Howell explained that the option was cost-prohibitive because of the physical modifications that such a system would require.

Instead they turned to a pay-on-foot option from Digital Payment Technologies (DPT) that features 12 LUKE II multispace pay stations for the airport’s four lots. Two to four kiosks are located in each lot. The entire project cost $225,000, which includes staff time to establish the Wi-Fi network.

The key hurdle that had to be overcome, however, was that the system needed to be solar powered. Howell explained that to run power to 12 different kiosks would have been “horrifically expensive” for the airport.

“We needed something that could stand-alone and communicate and power itself without any other structure being included,” he said. “There was no getting around the electrical part. We had to do it that way; otherwise the project was a no-go.”

Howell added that if one of the pay stations is having a power problem, airport employees can remotely see the status of each battery on the user screen of DPT’s enterprise management system (EMS). So if a battery fails, the pay station shuts down and a customer would need to use a different kiosk in that particular lot.

The stations all operate using a secured Wi-Fi network. Credit-card transactions run through the wireless connection and if there is network downtime, those transactions are stored in the pay station.

So if there is an outage, customers wouldn’t suspect anything amiss, as the kiosk will continue to issue parking receipts. Once the network connection is re-established, the stored credit-card transactions are then transmitted for authorization.

Operational Benefits

In addition to making the parking process easier for customers, the new system should also provide a variety of management benefits, starting with a reallocation of staff member responsibilities.

Howell said he currently has staff members spending about 20 to 30 hours per week handling cash and permits in the current manual parking payment system. He anticipates cutting that number by more than half once the new automated process starts to take hold.

In addition, since data from the pay stations is accessible in real time, better decisions can be made regarding future parking lot upgrades.

“From my perspective, we can see and learn things we never could before,” Howell said. “We know which parking lots are bringing in the most money, which unit is taking in the most money and see where our revenues are going.”

While the system went live for testing last week, Howell said he plans a four-week transition period so customers and staff can get used to the new system. The coin-operated meters in one particular lot will be removed next week and old payment methods will start to be phased out.

The system wasn’t supposed to be fully operational until mid-April. But customers have already noticed that the kiosks are active and are using the new technology, which surprised Howell. The pay stations don’t have any stickers on them and turning them on was initially supposed to be just for staff to run test transactions and fine-tune procedures.

“We found out we didn’t have to test four or five of the units because people had already started using them,” Howell said. “We weren’t even supposed to be online yet and we have $2,000 to $3,000 in revenue.

As the year goes on, additional features will be rolled out on the system. Howell said he and other airport officials are looking at enabling an option where customers can pay for parking or extend their parking using smartphones.

So when a person parks, he can enter his mobile number at the kiosk and it will send him an alert when the time is about to expire. The user can add additional time with the same credit-card number that was used in the system originally.

Howell is also interested in using license plate scanners that connect to the EMS to verify that the drivers of cars in the parking lot have paid. Currently a person goes to the kiosks, enters his or her license plate number as part of the payment process and puts the receipt on the vehicle’s dashboard.

But that hassle may soon be a thing of the past.

“When my staff is out doing [parking] enforcement and they come upon a car with the paper blown off the dash or upside-down, they can call in the license and double-check,” Howell said. “In the future, we can use a scanner [that] would recognize whether the plate was good or bad and would ultimately eliminate the necessity of the customer putting the ticket on the dash.”

Brian Heaton  |  Senior Writer

Brian Heaton is a senior writer for Government Technology. He primarily covers technology legislation and IT policy issues. Brian started his journalism career in 1999, covering sports and fitness for two trade publications based in Long Island, N.Y. He's also a member of the Professional Bowlers Association, and competes in regional tournaments throughout Northern California and Nevada.