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Duluth, UMD to launch parking app

The city of Duluth and UMD will jointly launch a new parking app Tuesday that will let people feed parking meters using mobile devices. Stickers like this one are on meters that currently work with the app. Bob King /

Tuesday, the city of Duluth will launch a new parking app in conjunction with the University of Minnesota Duluth. It's called Park Duluth, and its users will be able to pay for on-street parking via their smartphones rather than feeding meters, quarter after quarter.

Coin payments aren't going away. People who are fond of using quarters will still be able to plug meters the old-fashioned way. Park Duluth simply will offer motorists a new payment option, said Mark Bauer, parking operations specialist for the city of Duluth.

"We developed this in conjunction with UMD every step of the way. It was an idea that both parties were exploring at roughly the same time," he said. Bauer noted that the city and the university share many of the same parking challenges.

"We worked together, taking bids from different vendors and ended up both being interested in the same vendors. I think we were able to get the rate that we got because of our combined scale, because we were able to partner with UMD," Bauer said.

Patrick Keenan, UMD's director of student life operations, concurred that there were multiple benefits, noting: "Our vendor was able to bring in that many more meters for their company. It helped out the UMD campus and the city of Duluth, because there's power in numbers and we were able to negotiate a little better deal. And the parkers, those who are parking their vehicles, now whether you're on campus or downtown or elsewhere within the city, you're going to be using the same application."

Duluth and UMD chose a firm called Passport to help develop and operate Park Duluth. The same outfit has launched similar systems for other campuses, including Michigan State University and St. Cloud State; as well as other cities, including Cincinnati, Chicago and Boston.

Bauer said Passport is considered an industry leader and boasts robust security systems to guard against the disclosure of any of its users' financial information.

Once people install the app on their phones and set up an account, they can use it to pay for any on-street metered stall or off-street public lot that charges a fee in Duluth.

The same app will work seamlessly on UMD's campus.

UMD announced a soft launch of the system on campus last week and Keenan said early adopters will be offered two hours of free parking as a promotion. The university intends to offer the service at no additional charge to users.

But for paid public parking overseen by the city of Duluth, the vendor will charge a convenience fee of 20 cents per transaction. Bauer said the fee will not apply to follow-up transactions at the same location, allowing people to add time to a meter without subsequent additional service charges.

People can set up the app to provide them with a reminder shortly before their parking time is about to expire and giving them the option to extend it with the push of a button.

"We believe this will result in fewer tickets being issued because of the convenience factor. When your phone dings, saying your time is about to expire, and you paid that way, it's going to be very clear to you that your time is about to expire," Bauer said, contrasting that to conventional meters which require users to keep track of time.

Fewer parking tickets would be a plus in Bauer's eyes.

"Some people have the false impression that we are trying to generate the maximum amount of revenue possible with our issuance of tickets," he said, noting that the parking department isn't out to turn the biggest possible profit.

"The goal behind everything we do ... is to preserve the safety and access for parkers. We want to make sure spaces turn over so local businesses stay healthy, and we want to make sure that people with any kind of accessibility need or people who just simply want to visit a downtown business are able to do so without too many parking challenges. That's why we do what we do," he said.

Keenan also predicts fewer parking tickets will be issued on campus thanks to the app and said that's fine with him.

"If it's anything that would make parking less of a hassle and easier and a little more streamlined, then we're all for it," he said.

Keenan said the 300-plus solar-powered parking meters installed on campus at UMD in recent years all accept credit cards and will be able to communicate with the app directly. As a result, they immediately will display when a payment has been made via the app.

The city of Duluth is in a different boat, however, as its meters range in age and technology.

"This is simply an overlay. It's not going to talk to the meters at all," Bauer said.

In other words, the city meters won't display credit for payments made by phone, but Bauer offered assurances that parking enforcement monitors will be able to track those app payments to individual meters, even though their displays may show "expired."

Stickers will be affixed to meters throughout the city, allowing people using the app to make payments for specific spots.

Duluth will roll the app out incrementally across town over the next few weeks.

Bauer said the city eventually will update its parking meters, allowing the app to directly communicate them.