It doesn't take Missoula Parking Enforcement Officer Cyndie Winchell long to find an example of the downtown parking problem.
"See, check this out," she says, pointing to a yellow "Violation" tab inside a broken Main Street parking meter. "They're antiquated. It's old lock-and-key kind of stuff."
Meters like the one Winchell's referring to are most likely on the way out. As the city prepares to give N. Higgins Avenue a facelift this spring, old meters from Broadway north to Alder on Missoula's main drag are likely to get replaced. It's the first of several steps local officials are taking toward revamping downtown parking. But what replaces the old meters along the three-block stretch and, eventually, all across downtown remains up for debate.
The five-member Missoula Parking Commission (MPC) Board of Directors has final say in how the upcoming pilot project pans out.
One option under consideration is pay stations, or "kiosks," similar to the ones used at the University of Montana, Caras Park and the Millennium Building. Another possibility, according to Rod Austin, board chairman of MPC, would be "curb readers," which read license plates and allow the city to bill commuters later. Modern single-vehicle meters, potentially equipped to handle credit cards, are also in the running. Austin adds that the board could also decide to make no change at all, although it's unlikely.
The status quo would disappoint Winchell. For more than two decades, she's prowled city streets keeping an eye out for people attempting to squeak by on expired meters. Her dedication to the work was recognized last spring when the International Parking Institute named Winchell its 2009 Parking Staff Member of the Year. The honor allowed the self-described "meter maid" to attend the convention in Denver and peruse the latest pay-parking technology inside an immense conference hall.
"It was as big as downtown Missoula, with all these vendors in it," she says, chuckling. "Well, maybe not that big. That's an exaggeration."
Though her opinion is advisory only, Winchell says of all the options she's seen, pay stations are the best because they eliminate sidewalk clutter, offer flexible time limits and are easy to use.
"I just think in the long run, they're the way to go," she says. "Plus, you could make them fun. You could put Mickey Mouse on them."
The MPC board will dig into the issue after the first of the year, but it's already generating a lively debate. When the subject recently came up on City Councilman Bob Jaffe's listserv, the discussion generated approximately 45 e-mail messages between Dec. 4 and Dec. 9, in which locals piped up about parking peeves and preferences.
One commenter on the listserv remarked, "I don't like, do not want, will not agree in any manner to parking kiosks. They are difficult to use for anyone other than those with extra time, correct change, nothing in their hands, no small children in tow, or other encumbrances...Parking kiosks are a sign that you may have lost your senses."
Critics, including UM employee and Councilwoman Stacy Rye, claim pay stations frequently break and that tourists would have a hard time finding them. Plus, having to walking back and forth from one's car to the pay station—especially during winter—is inconvenient.
"I'm not a fan," Rye says.
Not everyone, however, agrees with bashing kiosks. UM Public Safety Operations Manager Shelley Harshbarger, who oversees campus pay station maintenance, says the machines get a bad rap. They hold up until temperatures drop into the single digits, and when they break, she says it's usually a quick fix.
"These have been really reliable machines," says Harshbarger.
It seems everyone has a strong opinion, and that doesn't surprise MPC Director Anne Guest. She's worked in the position for 15 years and knows how passionate locals are about parking.
"It affects everybody's life," she says. "It can be emotional."
Guest says the changeover will be implemented slowly to ensure it's a good fit.
"We're going to be cautious with this," she says.
One long-shot solution would be what Hide & Sole proprietor Scott Sproull is pushing for: free parking. He believes two-hour free parking north of Broadway would help all downtown businesses. Sproull points to an inherent link between perceived parking availability and retail success. Barriers have contributed to the demise of urban centers across the nation, he says, pointing to a recent Missoula Downtown Business Improvement District study that cites parking challenges as a primary reason people avoid downtown.
"The heart of my business can rise and fall on this," he says.
As downtown retailers compete with the mall and Reserve Street, where parking is free, Sproull maintains downtown businesses and customers alike would benefit from a new parking paradigm. He even suggests making up for the revenue lost from metered spaces by upping the price of city-leased parking spots.
"It would be a nice experiment," he says. "This is a real opportunity to do something for the customer."
As the discussion heats up, Winchell, who is accustomed to navigating an inherently antagonistic job with a smile, says it's important everyone keeps one goal in mind.
"You know what? We've got to be a community," she says. "We've got to figure something out that benefits as many people as possible."
For local officials charged with making the decision, the meter is already running.This story was updated and corrected on Dec. 18.