Introducing drive-by fines.
Port Washington’s six code enforcement officers will no longer patrol the community’s 1,000 LIRR commuter parking spaces, zigzagging around cars to hunt for expired permits and nonresidents parking illegally.
Instead, a single mobile camera will take on the task in a program that officials say will save North Hempstead Town time and money, and is believed to be the first of its kind on Long Island.
One officer will drive through the Port Washington Parking District’s lots, which are scattered throughout the community, with a camera on the vehicle’s roof that scans the plates to determine if the car is registered to a resident. If it’s not, a high-pitched beep is emitted — a signal to write a ticket and issue a fine.
What had taken hours of walking by code enforcement officers can be completed in a fraction of the time by the car that can accurately scan the plates at speeds as high as 40 mph.
Using license plate readers for parking enforcement is common in some cities and college campuses around the country, according to town officials, but Long Island communities rely on the walking approach.
Patrol-based parking enforcement is “time-consuming, and there’s always room for error,” said Shawn Brown, North Hempstead’s deputy public safety commissioner. “Instead of spending two to three hours inspecting the 12 lots, it could be reduced to a few minutes.”
Residents of the district, which covers the Port Washington peninsula as well as parts of Roslyn and Flower Hill villages, pay $255 for an annual commuter parking permit and a voucher for lots regularly overcrowded by nonresidents seeking to ride the only LIRR line that goes directly into Manhattan’s Penn Station without going through Jamaica.
The program, to take effect in about two months, is among town efforts to eliminate the community’s parking woes. “We don’t have enough parking,” Brown said. “We want to make sure the lots are for commuters and not being abused by noncommuters,” Brown said.
Ninety-seven percent of the station’s lots are full, according to a recent check by the Long Island Rail Road. North Hempstead Town enforcement officials have issued 15,000 tickets for parking violations in the district since 2013, the majority of them for commuter violations, Brown said. The town collected $476,305 in fines from those tickets. Violators include Mets fans who can head directly to Citi Field on the Port Washington LIRR line and shoppers, drawn by the lots’ proximity to Main Street, the hamlet’s downtown.
The change in enforcement comes as train commuters around Long Island struggle to find parking spaces. A City of Glen Cove ban on nonresident parking in most commuter spaces took effect Friday. The Town of Islip is adding parking meters in commuter lots in Bay Shore, the first at any LIRR lots in the town.
“You want to make sure the people who pay to have a reserved spot aren’t squeezed out by the people who haven’t paid,” said Mitchell Pally, Suffolk’s representative to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board. “It’s bad enough to have to pay, but if I can’t find a spot, that’s a double problem.”
Parking is so challenging that Ron Harris, 67, said he has not used a Port Washington lot for his commute to Manhattan in 20 years. By the time he arrives for an 8:08 a.m. or 8:45 a.m. train, the lots are full. Instead, he finds street parking, walking three-quarters of a mile to the station.
“I have given up,” said Harris, who owns a television production company. “I would like to see a more efficient, better enforcement.”
The license plate reader enforcement would cut down on staffing needed at the town lots, Brown said. Currently, officers must search two sides of the car for a voucher and a sticker. The voucher hangs from the dashboard mirror, while the permit stickers are to be adhered to the rear bumper. Bright sunshine and snow can obscure them, too, and inspectors have slipped and fallen while searching for vouchers and stickers, Brown said.
North Hempstead Town Supervisor Judi Bosworth said the scanner program would reduce overtime costs and eliminate the need for residents to use the stickers. “We’re trying to cut through the bureaucracy,” Bosworth said.
The program includes allowing residents to register their vehicles online instead of in-person at the train station. The town has authorized purchasing the license plate reader program and software for online registration from Gtechna, a Montreal company, and officials estimate the overall costs between $50,000 and $70,000, depending on the type of cameras purchased. The town spends about $15,000 annually to print stickers and permits, and won’t need to anymore, Brown said.
License plate recognition systems have been used for the past few years by Long Island police forces, including Kings Point and Nassau County. The Nassau County Police Department has 18 cars that photograph vehicle plates during daily patrols, and the pictures are saved for five years to search for criminals, stolen cars, and unregistered plates. Kings Point installed license plate readers at entrances to the community to check vehicles against crime reports.
Cities including Miami, Buffalo and Baltimore as well as several in Canada, and college campuses, such as the University at Buffalo and Cornell University, use license plate readers for parking enforcement.
Rolando Tapanes, director of planning and development for the Miami Parking Authority, said the license plate readers check for outstanding parking tickets and drivers who didn’t pay. Since adopting the readers in 2010, the city has seen “higher efficiency,” Tapanes said. “Rather than having to go individually, car-by-car to check, walking, and covering much less territory in a period of time, you have the same individual driving down a lot in a much quicker fashion.”
Surveillance technology has raised concerns among civil liberties organizations, whose members worry the data gathered can be easily hacked. But officials from North Hempstead and Gtechna say no photos are stored for more than a day. The pictures of plates can be printed and kept with the ticket at the discretion of the code enforcers, Brown said. Town officials said the current walking checks do not include photos of the plates
Jason Starr, Long Island director of the The New York Civil Liberties Union, said while the program appears to be appropriate, he worries the data could be breached even if it’s stored for less than a day.
“You’re used to seeing the parking agent or attendant checking your meter; technology replacing that might be more efficient for law enforcement, but it comes with associated risks.”
Town officials said they hope residents take to the program and efforts to ease the competition for parking spaces.
Earlier this year, a woman speeding at 50 mph in a district lot crashed into four cars and an LIRR fence, nearly striking two parking lot officers, Brown said.
“There are so many silly fights and arguments over parking spaces,” he said, adding that Port Washington LIRR users have “a great train service, you never have to wait for a seat because it’s the first stop.”