By DIEGO JESUS BARTESAGHI MENA and LOUIS C. HOCHMAN
Almost all parking meters in Montclair are now working, after Verizon restored the 2G service they depend on, township officials say. But the township is still moving ahead to refurbish its fleet of more than 1,000 meters, wary the cellular service provider could cut off 2G again at any time.
Montclair will also extend until Jan. 9 its parking holiday — started late last month, and originally scheduled through Dec. 26. It’s an annual tradition in Montclair during the holiday shopping season, giving two hours of free parking for any driver at a metered spot.
The parking holiday had brought residents and visitors temporary relief as meters throughout the township failed, but Montclair codes continued to require anyone parking to pay. If a spot’s meter wasn’t working, residents could use the ParkMobile app or call ParkMobile at 877-727-5304, but some said they found the service difficult or unreliable, and complained it was a hardship for people without smartphones or the technological savvy to use the app.
The Montclair Township Council voted for the extension Tuesday, Dec. 21, also paying bills to refurbish hundreds of meters. Work on hundreds more is expected in 2022. It previously voted against starting the parking holiday weeks earlier than originally planned.
Mayor Sean Spiller said Tuesday night that on any given day, the township is now seeing less than 50 non-functional meters, which he said was lower than the average pre-pandemic. Township Communications Director Katya Wowk, passing on information from the municipal parking utility, put the figure even lower Wednesday — with just five meters not working that day. One, her message said, was a pay station that got damaged during Ida.
Spiller, at the meeting, said he was thankful for the “agressive work” the township’s parking utility had done on the issue, and for the collaboration of other council members, including Councilwoman Robin Schlager. She, Spiller and Councilman Peter Yacobellis are all on the council’s economic development committee.
“We all kind of figured out what we might work here and that they’ve been able to execute it,” Spiller said of the parking utility. “And now we are down to that number which is a really wonderful thing.”
And he said the extended parking holiday would “give the crews that have been working so hard just that little bit of room to see if we can get this down to numbers we’ve never seen in terms of how low.”
Under normal circumstances, meters may break down for various reasons — including interference from vandals who deliberately jam coin slots with gum or doubled-up coins. But when Verizon started shut down area 2G service earlier this year while upgrading systems for 4G and 5G connections, Montclair meters that depended on it stopped getting signals. While they kept trying to connect, their batteries would run down as well.
Yacobellis said the 2G service came back a few weeks ago. But it’s not clear how long that restored service will last. Township officials had said they were caught off guard by the previous service shutoffs, happening sooner than they’d been told to expect them.
According to figures provided by Wowk, Montclair has 1002 “active” meters, and about another 30 on hand from broken poles or removed during construction. As of the end of business Wednesday, her message said, 388 had been upgraded to 4G, and another 614 remained to be upgraded “so that if Verizon turns off the 2G signal, we don’t have to go [through] this all over again.”
Wowk has previously said the remaining 614 should be upgraded sometime in the first half of 2022.
The council Tuesday night authorized a $66,420 payment to vendor IPS Group for 324 of the meters. Yacobellis had said that was for invoices in November and December of this year, but the resolution itself describes the work as having been for a proposal IPS provided on Dec. 1.
Wowk on Thursday morning was seeking further clarification regarding the costs and payments made so far, and what costs were anticipated for work ahead.
The resolution authorizing the payment said IPS would “provide 4G upgrades [and a] new dome, solar panel, a new cellular antenna, main batteries, display, and shipping for $205 per unit.” Yacobellis said with new exteriors, the meters will appear new.
The council is also planning to purchase 10 kiosks for surface lots, where residents will be able to use either the familiar ParkMobile app or or the Flowbird app as an alternative to paying at the machine, Wowk has said. Such a kiosk is already online at the township’s Bellevue lot, expected to be up and running for the end of the parking holiday. Wowk had previously said the council expected to authorize payment for the remainder at the Dec. 21 meeting, but her most recent message said action for it would instead be introduced Jan. 4.
As kiosks go into lots, meters will be moved out, giving the township more spares on hand when meters break down.
“We are aggressively addressing the metered parking situation to ensure that residents, visitors and business owners have a positive parking experience in the township,” Spiller said in a press release earlier this month. “The new pay stations, choice of payment method, and upgraded meters will certainly be a benefit for anyone who lives, works or shops in Montclair.”