GALVESTON — Visitors to the island greeted the debut of paid parking along most of Seawall Boulevard on Saturday with confusion and dismay, expressing frustration with the new pay-by-phone program set up in lieu of meters.
The paid program — $1 an hour or $8 a day to park between 6th and 69th streets or 81st and 103rd streets — launched at 10 a.m.
As cars filled up parking spots on the seawall throughout the morning and early afternoon, many visitors looked befuddled as they pulled out their phones and looked at signs with information about PayByPhone, the software being used to manage payments.
Galveston police have said there will be a grace period before officers begin issuing $17 citations to those who neglect to pay, which is fortunate for the many visitors who struggled to figure out the system.
Visitors trying to pay by phone reported problems including dropped calls, a lack of clear instructions and difficulty correctly typing out the extensive information required for payment. Others said the PayByPhone system failed to recognize the four-digit code for parking on the seawall.
City officials have said that certain issues were anticipated at the start of the program but acknowledged that not everything may have been thought of.
Police Chief Henry Porretto said that there may be changes to the program — such as the installation of rate signage — based on the feedback the police department and city receive in the coming days and weeks.
“That really hadn’t occurred to us,” said Porretto about lack of prices actually displayed on the seawall. “We’re going to review everything. We encourage the feedback.”
Dropping the call
Porretto said that a spot check of a group of cars at 1 p.m. showed that 18 of 20 vehicles that had been scanned had properly paid for parking.
But many of the visitors interviewed by The Daily News expressed frustration.
David Baron and his daughter drove down from Houston, stopping at the seawall on their way to Schlitterbahn.
Baron, who had heard that a paid system was set to go into effect this weekend, expected to find parking meters or a machine that could read credit cards. Baron does not have a smart phone, so downloading the online PayByPhone application was not an option.
He pointed out that signs posted along Seawall Boulevard provide a phone number to call but no information on pay rates or instructions on how to sign up for parking.
Baron tried calling twice. The first time, he was able to give the automated voice on the other end of the line his phone number and some of his credit card information before the call was dropped. On the second try, the system recognized his phone number, but the line went dead as Baron began to type out his license plate number.
“It’s supposed to be a convenience for me, but it’s set up for them,” he said.
Joseph Sotelo and his family are from Dallas. Saturday was his first trip to Galveston in 27 years, and the new paid parking system started the family vacation off on a stressful note.
Sotelo said he would be more than happy to pay for parking but had concerns with giving out his credit card information online or over the phone.
“I don’t know how secure the system is,” he said.
Sotelo and his family drove to Galveston in a rental car, and he also worried about additional charges that might crop up from giving PayByPhone the license plate of a vehicle he doesn’t own.
Nicole Hernandez of Carrollton noted that the phone system does not state the cost of parking until after a customer has plugged in the license plate number and credit card information. Hernandez, who comes to the island about once a year, said the new system could affect how frequently she visits.
“It makes me think if I can’t get a hotel off the seawall, I’m done,” she said.
Miranda Lamp is a disabled veteran who lives in Friendswood. Drivers with handicapped parking passes don’t have to pay to park along the seawall, but Lamp said she was confused about how the new system would affect her disabled veteran parking pass.
Lamp regularly rides her bike or takes walks along the seawall but said she might begin walking elsewhere.
“If I’m going to have to pay to walk along the seawall, well, I won’t,” she said.
‘I don’t think the city was ready’
The city planned on Saturday to pass out brochures with more information on how to pay for seawall parking, and police officers were to help clue visitors in on how to work the new system.
Implementing the program and informing tourists and residents will take time, officials have said.
The city is working to recruit more local vendors to help facilitate the sale of parking passes, said Austin Kimbrough, owner of the 61st Street Fishing Pier.
The pier is one of two businesses that have signed on to help register people to park along the seawall, and Kimbrough has already sold about a dozen yearly passes, which cost $25, he said.
Seawall parking fees have been a long time coming. The program was approved by voters in May 2011 but was delayed as the city figured out how to implement, fund and manage a working system.
Still, Kimbrough said, paid parking on the seawall may not have been ready for its big debut.
“I don’t think the city was ready,” he said.
The city has not confirmed the name of the second business.
Some visitors said they would prefer paying to park using a more tried-and-true method.
“If you want me to pay, put a meter up at least,” said Houston resident Tonna Maloy.
‘We are here to help’
City Manager Michael Kovacs, who has largely stayed silent about the parking program, referred questions to the city spokeswoman. Organizationally, the program is managed by the police department and paid for from the city’s convention center hotel tax funds.
City spokeswoman Elizabeth Rogers said that the city had heard few complaints about the phone system in days leading up to the launch.
Rogers invited residents who were having difficulty setting up their accounts to visit the city manager’s office for assistance.
“We understand that this is a new program, and we are here to help,” Rogers said, adding that PayByPhone was already a “global system” being used in dozens of others cities.
In the buildup to the launch, officials said the using the pay-by-phone system instead of meters would save the city money on installation, maintenance and operations.
Rogers added that it was not feasible to install electronic hardware on the seawall because of the “harsh salt environment.”
Reporter John Wayne Ferguson contributed to this report.