Boston aims to beef up parking enforcement. We took a deep dive into the request for proposal to forecast their highly profitable plans.
Boston officials are looking to upgrade the city’s massive parking enforcement management system, which brings in $60 million a year through more than a million parking tickets and thousands of boots and tows. And they’re planning to potentially see even more, according to documents obtained by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism.
Those documents require the new system to have greater capacity for storing parking violations than it currently does, according to the bid documents, and while the city does not currently charge fees for resident parking permits, the new system needs to be set up to charge fees. Those documents also state that tow and storage fees may increase, and officials expect an increase in booting and towing as well.
And a big part of processing all those tickets will be the 220 new hand-held ticket devices the city is requiring from the vendor. City officials say they will make it easier for parking officers to issue tickets—and report cars for booting—and also make the city look good and the officers feel better about themselves.
“The utilization of the devices should also improve the public image of the Boston Transportation Department and the City’s positive orientation towards using technology to solve and address challenges,” the bid reads. “For a function such as ticket writing, often berated by the public, a new, different and more professional perspective and public perception of their jobs could provide a much-needed boost to both the morale and self-esteem of the enforcement officers.”
When asked about the bid, a spokesperson for Boston Mayor Michelle Wu said officials are not trying to increase tickets.
“Our intention is not to increase the number of tickets issued, but to improve the quality of the violations issued,” the spokesperson said.
Big business, big partner
Parking tickets are big business in Boston. Between 1.2 million and 1.5 million tickets are issued every year, and the city collects $60 million in tickets and other fees, with 20% of that money coming from overdue tickets, according to the bid. The city currently has 2 million tickets in its active database—which includes paid and unpaid tickets—and 45 million in an archive dating back to the mid-’90s.
Besides issuing tickets and processing fines and fees, the city also deals with disputes over 10% of tickets every year, according to the bid—involving more than 300,000 phone calls. Officials also track data around parking and violations.
“The effective and efficient management and operation of the Boston Transportation Department is essential to the City and directly impacts the quality of life in Boston,” the bid states.
This is done through what the city calls its Parking Violation/Parking Management Information Services System, or PVPMISS. And it’s what they’re looking for in a massive, 600-page bid issued in October—a “turnkey” system that will be ready to go by July 2022.
The PVPMISS system is currently run by Conduent State and Local Solutions, a $4 billion business and government contractor, which gets paid $4.04 per ticket issued. And they’ve been working with Boston for three decades, according to a 2016 “case study” put out by Conduent themselves that praises the partnership and plays up how it can provide new services without R and D costs.
“Conduent is always protective of the city, our data and our integrity,” then-BTD Commissioner Gina Fiandaca says in the case study. “The staff is outstanding; always willing to do what it takes to get the job done. We are true partners—I think that’s evident in all we have accomplished together.”
When asked if the highly detailed and complex bid could be satisfied in six months by anyone who isn’t the current vendor, the mayoral spokesperson said “several companies” in the industry could provide its services.
New tunes, new tech
Those services are likely to increase. The active online database has held as many as 12 million violations, and “under certain circumstances the City can envision the need to eventually match or exceed the former 12 million violation capacity,” the bid says. And while the vendor needs to be able to process 4,000 to 7,000 ticket payments per day, it needs to be able to expand that by increments of 500 per day, according to the bid.
There are other duties too, like collecting overdue “backlog” tickets, from which the vendor gets up to 20% of revenues, and extracting registration info out of the RMV. And while one requirement is extremely low-tech—“Presently, on hold music is being provided by way of a portable compact disc (CD) player. Proposers must provide an alternative to the CD player,” the bid reads—others have a much broader scope.
BTD already has license-plate readers, but the bid requires at least four more “for the purpose of scofflaw identification, parking enforcement and parking management via a mobile patrol vehicle and inventory system.” The readers will match scanned license plates to a database of cars BTD can seize or boot, the bid says. And the vendor should develop an “intelligent” file of boot eligible cars with outstanding tickets, “in order to pinpoint and hone the Scofflaw trends, habits and where and when they will most frequently be, based on their prior ticket history,” the bid reads. It continues: “This might encompass sorting and filtering by time periods of the day, days of the week and other related information and fields to facilitate identifying and capturing scofflaws.”
Over the past few years, BTD has used dynamic pricing for some parking meters in the city, increasing and decreasing rates based on demand. The vendor’s system needs to be able to increase prices across all meters and do so in 20 minute increments, according to the bid.
And while officials currently give nearly 80,000 residential permits out for free, that could be coming to an end. The bid does not say a fee is definitely coming, but requires the vendor to “accommodate the payment of a fee for resident permits” in its system.
While on the City Council, Mayor Michelle Wu proposed a $25 fee for residential permits. The spokesperson did not say if Wu still favored a fee but said the requirement was added to the bid
“in the event a new Mayor desired changes,” and “to allow us to explore options for raising fees in case the City took a policy decision to go do so.” The spokesperson noted the bid was written before Wu was elected and said officials are “currently exploring various technologies” to create an inventory of residential spots, which currently does not exist.
The bid accounts for other things that may come in the future, noting that the violation tow fee of $90 and storage charge amount of $3 may increase “as the result of recently enacted or pending legislation.” The spokesperson said officials “wanted to add some flexibility in the event that the storage fee increased from $3 per hour.”
And while red light running cameras are currently illegal in Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker has filed a bill that would allow for their use. The bid asks responders to give information how they’ve used red light running cameras and says the vendor should keep Boston officials apprised of them and other parking programs.
“By way of illustration of new approaches and systems, the BTD expects to be provided information on hand-held ticket writers, red-light running programs, new innovations relative to on-street parking, and new applications developed for boot and tow operations,” the bid reads.
Hand-held, esteem raised
The 2016 case study published by Conduent touts the company’s introduction of hand-held ticket-writing devices (HHDs), but city officials apparently feel like they need an upgrade. The bid’s lengthy section on HHDs, which requires 220 new devices, describes the difficulties parking officers have while giving tickets:
- “The issuing officers must focus their attention to the details relating to the vehicle and its registration as well as the regulations and signage.”
- “The ticket writer must often think about how to decode/decipher some very confusing license plates due to the different license plate types, plate phrases/wording, plate colors, alpha/numeric characters and symbols and combinations created by the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles and other out-of-state Motor Vehicle Departments.”
- “In reference to the regulations and signage, the officers must focus their full attention on the on-street factors that lead to proper or improper issuance of a violation.”
- “Officers are responsible for accurately interpreting the hours of operation and the operational status of meters, and they must be cognizant of applicable permits and placards.”
“It is important to recognize that the public’s relationship and feelings about their motor vehicles and parking spaces create a variety of dimensions and challenges,” the bid reads. “The public’s issues with parking in combination with the constant review and scrutiny by the media of anything to do with parking and the political/government setting of the operation creates a need for the ‘best/most reliable’ solution approach to HHDs.”
And how could they help parking officers? By tracking those boot eligible lists, for one thing. If a ticket is issued to a plate on the list, the HHD can automatically send a message to the tow lot giving them the location of the car, the bid says—and then the “boot crew” can come out to boot or tow the vehicle.
“Since Parking Enforcement Officers would be in effect acting as ‘passive spotters’ of boot eligible vehicles (along with present Tow Lot personnel), an increase in booting and towing activity may result,” the bid notes.
“Our current handhelds allow our [parking enforcement officers] to attach images to the violations which provide visual evidence of any infractions,” the mayoral spokesperson said. “We aim to provide our enforcement officers with all the necessary tools they need.”
Those tools can also track the officers, though—capturing not just number and type of tickets written, but “time-outs” taken for lunch and breaks. And this will feed into a system that managers can watch in real time to monitor workers, according to the bid.
“The product should include a dashboard interface that analyzes activities such as time worked, patrolled, time spent interacting with customers, issuing citations, heat maps, and must be capable of providing data elements to the City,” the bid reads. “The system should have a graphical display to help supervisors determine productivity of the time spent on a beat, identify best practices, and immediately identify the officers who have performed well on a shift.”
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