EXCLUSIVE: Drivers find way around Chinatown 'smart' meters

EXCLUSIVE: Drivers find way around Chinatown 'smart' meters

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - A year ago, new "smart meters" were installed throughout downtown Honolulu and Chinatown that were meant to improve parking convenience.

A Hawaii News Now investigation has determined the new technology designed to help is actually making it easier for people to circumvent the rules and park longer than they should be able to without penalty.

The "smart meters" technology allows drivers to pay by coin, credit card or even cell. The perks of paying by phone is that you can "feed" the meter even if you're blocks away.  Some savvy drivers have discovered a loophole that has allowed them to park in one hour stalls for as many hours as they like, so long as they keep "feeding" the meter from their phones.

Chinatown merchants on Mauna Kea Street say it's become a huge problem.

"Some people they park over here one whole day," said Wing Loy, the owner of Wing Loy's Deli.  "All day long," he complained, shaking his head.

"I think that people should respect the one hour parking, and I think if you need to park more than one hour – find someplace else," said Duc Ngeyen, who owns Duc's Bistro.

Drivers have been able to get away with parking for longer than the one hour time limit, because sensors which were installed alongside each smart meter were never turned on. When activated it can prevent someone from filling the meter past the allowed time period, unless they physically move their car.

"The prior administration—not wanting to conflict with the coin meters which lets you feed them forever, even if you go pass the time limit – decided not to enable that feature," explained Mike Formby, the Director of the Department of Transportation Services for the City and County of Honolulu.

City officials tell Hawaii News Now they didn't realize the previous administration hadn't activated the sensors until we brought it to their attention.

"On street parking is intended to be short-term parking, and it's not intended for people who want to be there 8 hours or 10 hours – so if we have the technology, I think we should consider using it," said Formby, who explained the city is looking into the matter.

It appears not everyone has been enjoying extended parking in Chinatown.  Someone has removed the pay by phone sticker instructions from most of the "smart meters".

"This is too easy to peel off.  It could just be street vandalism or it could be people wanting to take advantage of – so easy to circumvent the time limit, which is meant to be so that it facilitate more turn over, so that people can come and shop and use the parking stall," described Chu Lan Shubert-Kwock, President of the Chinatown Business & Community Association.  "This is not good."

In fact, so few "smart meters" have instructions about the pay by phone feature – many drivers we spoke to weren't even aware it is an option.

"Never know, I never see that before that's why," said Ngaching Leung, who parks in Chinatown often.

Officials admit parking enforcement is a tricky issue. They say even though the city is in charge of enforcing parking regulations through the Honolulu Police Department, there's no financial incentive for the city to hire more parking enforcement officers, because the money stays with the state.

To date the city has spent $300,000 installing 340 "smart meters" across O'ahu. Officials say this is an on-going program with more installations planned.  They say the tracking sensors can be turned on remotely, but they need to speak with the "smart meters" manufacturer to determine if there's an activation fee.

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