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Car park management: the surprising cost of boom gates and ticketing

Boom gates and ticketing, or inspectors, clamping and towing — running a paid car parking lot does require some specialist understanding, as Canberra agencies are quickly learning.

The National Capital Authority and the Department of Parliamentary Services — as holders of extremely valuable crown land close to major public agencies and tourist spots — are learning how to run a side-business in paid parking.

The NCA moved first, directed by the government to implement paid parking in the parliamentary triangle as a revenue generator for Treasury (NCA won’t keep a cent for their own activities). Starting in October 2014, laws were changed to make it an offence to park a vehicle on open space and landscaped areas around the leafy parliamentary triangle. From NCA’s perspective, pay parking solved one ongoing problem: where do visitors to the national institutions get to park if all the spaces in the triangle are used by public servants?

It wasn’t an easy ride though. NCA implemented a “pay and display” setup involved electronic ticket machines from Duncan Solutions with printed tickets that you could pay for with coins or a credit card, and parking inspectors. Initially there were problems with the five-day tickets, which have proved the most popular for workers. However, the Department of Defence decided its staff would be subsidised, so a bespoke modification was introduced so Defence officials could register their credit card and receive a significantly discounted daily rate.

Complaints were numerous, and customers were receiving charges on their credit cards sometimes weeks after the payment was made. The NCA had assure the public that “their credit card details remain encrypted and have not been hacked by an external source.”

When the Defence-only discount failed to apply, customers were directed to call Duncan Solutions directly — only to be told that nothing could done, sparking even more complaints to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, among others.

The NCA says in the first three months of paid parking, they sold 353,039 tickets, of which 73% were long stay tickets — clearly public servants who work Monday to Friday in the area, rather than tourists looking to visit the National Portrait Gallery or Questacon. 4600 infringements were issued, and despite the regular complaints from customers, the Authority claims the ticket machine uptime averaged 99.91%. NCA boss Malcolm Snow will be answering questions on the latest figures in Budget Estimates tomorrow.

The only free parking in the area after those changes, now belong to the Australian Parliament House, under the auspices of the Department of Parliamentary Services.

DPS quickly realised hundreds of public servants would flood the free visitor parking in the parliament, unless it too moved to introduce a form of paid parking. Already public servants in the building, as well as media staff and other building workers do use the free visitor parking underneath the parliament’s forecourt — it’s convenient and there was no boom gate as seen in the secure car parks underneath the ministerial, Senate and House of Representatives wings. Those car parks are also vastly over capacity.

Neil Skill
Neil Skill

Neil Skill, DPS first assistance secretary of building and asset management told senators this week the needs of visitors needed to be protected. He explained:

“One of the key concerns of DPS was that, upon the introduction of pay parking around the triangle, the visitor car park would become a de facto free car-parking spot for the large number of public servants that work in the parliamentary triangle. Our intent, or our purpose, has always been to retain access to the visitor car park for visitors to parliament house. That drove the thinking behind the pricing regime as well.

“The thinking behind the rates was that the first two hours would be free so that legitimate visitors to parliament house would be able to come and would not be discouraged by the parking regime in the broader triangle — there is no free period, as far as I am aware, in the broader triangle — and also to differentiate the costs so that it did not become an alternative parking spot at the same cost as the NCA spots for other public servants, who could then choose to park their vehicle under cover for the day, as opposed to out on the NCA spots. We got some independent advice, as well, as to the rates to charge and recommended advice from external consultants, the Grosvenor consulting group.”

DPS priced the maximum daily rate at $20 for more than six hours, higher than the NCA’s daily rate of $12. Parking is free if visitors spend $25 in parliament’s gift store, although most visitors are in and out within the two-hour free period.

As a side-business, the parking revenue will be kept by DPS — something NCA wasn’t allowed to do with its car parks.

Benjamin Wright, DPS chief financial officer said there was about $270,000 in revenue so far and will be used to offset costs under section 74 of the PGPA Act.

Instead of a “pay and display” model, DPS went with boom gates. Instead of saving money on doing away with inspectors, it found it needed to have staff nearby anyway to deal with other management issues. So, despite the fact that the building had not changed substantially, nor a new car park built, costs of car park management were surprisingly high.

Those new costs included $591,000 on car park works and $375,000 on the boom gates alone, plus ongoing costs of extra security staff, merchant fees to use credit cards on the pay machines, and the actual tickets themselves cost money too. Parliament house security has found itself a frontline customer service too: Erin Noordeloos, DPS assistant secretary for the security branch, explained:

“That includes for people who get to the boom gate and either have lost their ticket or have an issue with payment or exit. They also provide support to people who, perhaps, for language difficulties need support in translating, paying at ticket machines and so forth, and deal with any infrastructure problems that emerge, particularly after hours … refill ticket machines, call for building management support if one of the machines is down, etc.

“Previously we did not staff someone specifically to cover the car park; now we do because we do not want to have long lead times between someone raising an issue — for example, being caught at a boom gate — and someone responding. We have one to two personnel per day depending on the size of the day. For example, last week with the budget we did roster two people for the car park during those days. We often had a team leader also providing that support, because we had a number of people in the car park.

“They will also monitor the flow of traffic, particularly when it comes down to long times for people exiting when we have had a function finish at the same time. As with anything that finishes at once, you then get a rush of people leaving. So they monitor that time to make sure that we do not run into any issues or concerns. And, if we do, they make sure to then problem solve immediately so people can exit safely and securely.”

There were teething issues too, Noordeloos said: “Within security branch we have had 47 items of feedback provided. That was inclusive of 19 complaints. Ten were unhappy with the introduction of paid parking and the lack of availability of parking. Three were in relation to lost ticket charges. Three were allegations of overcharging. There was one staff complaint. There was one complaint about bus access, as we discussed earlier, and one about the charging of motorcycles. We had 24 inquiries as to what the charges may be, what alternative parking options there may be or with respect to disability parking.”

You tell us: Have you run a car park for a government entity? What challenges did you face?

Author Bio

Harley Dennett

Harley Dennett is editor at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's held communications roles in the New South Wales public sector and Defence, and been a staff reporter for newspapers in Sydney and Washington DC.