A few weeks ago, Rashmini de Silva parked her car near the Savoy Theater in Wellawatte. It was a designated parking lot, though there was no attendant in sight. She did not notice a parking meter either. When she came back after a couple of hours, she was surprised to find a sheet of paper called a “parking fee violation” affixed to her windshield. About four days later, she walked into the car park company and was astounded to hear that she had raked up to Rs.6,000 in fines. Their explanation: extra penalties had accumulated due to delayed payment.
“This is daylight robbery,” Rashmini laments, saying she had no idea there was a parking machine nearby. “It’s a rip off,” she added.
On another day, Suraj Pathirana parks his motorcycle at Colombo’s popular outdoor destination, Galle Face Green and heads to the nearest parking machine for payment. Though a clear signage states the parking fee for an hour is Rs.10, Pathirana ends up spending Rs.20 on the machine simply because the smart machine does not accept Rs.10 coins. Nor is he offered change.
“Now I have to always remember to carry a Rs. 10 note before I start my journey to a car park like this. I don’t know what my odds of that will be,” he quips.
The two incidents demonstrate real life examples of confusion encountered by everyday motorists with the newly installed solar-powered pay-by-plate parking meters in several demarcated zones in Colombo.
While a few commend the initiative for the convenience – especially, that of reducing interaction with sometimes annoying traffic wardens, others however, question the practicality of the system given the host of concerns, including in the design of the machine and its associated infrastructure.
According to the Director – Engineering Traffic Design and Road Safety at the Colombo Municipal Council (CMC), Nihal Wickramaratne, several parking locations in Colombo have been authorized for management by a private company named Tenaga Car Parks (Pvt) Ltd, under a Public Private Partnership (PPP)signed with the CMC in 2015.
With a vision of transforming Colombo into a smart city, Tenaga Car Parks was established in 2003 as a Board of Investment-approved joint venture operation with Tenaga Malaysia. In 2009, the local firm bought over the Malaysian partners and is now a 100% Sri Lankan owned parking and traffic Management Company.
Explaining the rationale behind outsourcing the business of managing public parking slots to a private company, Wickramaratne points out the lack of resource capabilities at the local authority to efficiently manage such an operation by meeting the demands of the modern day motorists. Further, the CMC’s past experiences in undertaking such a venture had failed as it resulted in heavy losses being suffered by the Municipality.
“In the past, while the wardens raked in revenue of around Rs. 20 million a year, we, however, spent Rs.27 million on salaries and overtime for the wardens,” highlights Wickramaratne pointing out that lack of proper accountability in the manual operation had been the prime cause for the loss.
Given the situation, Wickramaratne says the CMC in August 2015 had floated a public tender to manage parking along Galle Road (from the Galadari Junction to the Dehiwala Bridge) and Duplication Road (from Liberty Plaza Junction to Dharmarama Road), including all intersecting by-lanes. Amidst six bidding companies, Tenaga had then been able to secure the tender.
Lack of public awareness
However, for motorists like Rashmini, Tenaga’s entry into the parking management business in the island’s capital had been totally out of the blue. Until the day she received the violation sheet, she was not aware that a private company is now involved in collecting fines, she says.
“On top of that, walking into a private company to pay a fine which I encountered as a result of parking my vehicle in a public space was something very unusual,” she laments.
Acknowledging the issue on the lack of public awareness, CMC Director Nihal Wickramaratne said, while both, the CMC and Tenaga are collectively responsible for creating awareness, the bigger responsibility lies with Tenaga.
“Currently, I am also not happy with the awareness created among people on parking machines. We advertised this new machine system in all newspapers and we have uploaded it on our CMC website. But it doesn’t seem to be enough,” the CMC Director acknowledged pointing to Tenaga for the lack of communication.
However, responding to the concern, Managing Director of Tenaga Car Parks (Pvt) Ltd., Duminda Jayatilake says, they are doing their utmost and had already conducted several street awareness campaigns which included a total of 30,000 leaflets in all three languages. The company also hopes to escalate publicity campaigns in the near future, he said.
“Unlike a consumer good, parking is a very different industry to market. In Colombo, everyday there is a constant turnaround of people. You may have new people in areas like Galle Face, but in other areas it’s just a rollover,” said Jayatilake, justifying street campaigns as the effective medium to create awareness.
Pointing out 36 meters is the furthest distance a parking machine has been fixed from a parked vehicle, motorists, he said, should therefore avoid lame excuses that they hadn’t spotted a machine. On top of this, there were also large boards saying ‘Pay Point’ and the Company is in the process of increasing exposure by placing signage on every electricity lamp post, he said.
“We have done enough signage, but the question is how much is enough” Jayatilake countered.
In parallel with the initiation of smart parking management and fee collecting system, the CMC, in July last year, had introduced the enforcement law by updating the existing parking by-laws (as published in the Gazette No-2029/29).
As per the new law, parking without making the due payments or parking in excess of the time permitted is now considered as unauthorized parking and is subject to a late fee. While the owner of the vehicle is liable to settle cumulative late fee upon receiving such notice, the new law has also enabled the right to Tenaga to enforce clamping (tyre locking) if the parking charges are not settled.
Under the updated gazette, if the late fee is not paid, from the second day, up to 14 days, for one day or a part of a day, Rs 360, Rs 720, Rs 1,080, Rs 1,800, Rs 500 and Rs 850 will be charged for motor bicycle, motor tricycle, a motor car, or dual purpose vehicle, buses or motor coach or lorries, school vans and school buses respectively.
Thereafter, for one month or a part of a month, Rs 5,000, Rs 10,000, Rs 15,000, Rs 25,000, Rs 7,000 and Rs 12,000 will be charged as late fees respectively for the above vehicles.
The gazette also states that action will be taken to recover arrears of late fee after a lapse of three months or when the accumulative late fee is more than Rs. 50,000 or whichever occurs after filing action in court.
“The reason Rashmini had to incur a penalty of around Rs. 6,000 is probably because she must have delayed her payment by at least five days. Had she paid on the first day of receiving the fine – where there is an option of paying on the machine, she would have been let off with a Rs. 60 fine,”Tenaga’s Managing Director said.
However, he highlighted that Tenaga was not involved or responsible for the formulation of the fee structure including the decision on devising late fees or penalties as stipulated in the gazette, but that this authority fell under the jurisdiction of Provincial Councils and related Municipalities.
“We are merely managing agents for the CMC with the authority to enforce the law. When it comes to unpaid traffic penalties, we merely pass the relevant data of offenders with evidence to the Municipality so that the CMC could file legal action,” Jayatilleke clarified.
Displaying tickets not necessary
However, from the perspective of Rashmini, the only payment center mentioned in the citation (parking fee violation sheet) was that she had to physically walk in to pay at the office of Tenaga Car Park located at Havelock Road in Colombo. As she had delayed payment by four days, she had to bear an additional late fee of Rs. 1,060 for each day delayed.
“I live in Colombo 15. So, is it fair that Tenaga or CMC expects me to travel all the way to make a payment?,” she questions asking why the authorities had failed to introduce a sufficient grace period before charging exorbitant penalty fees.
Responding to the concern, both Tenaga and CMC officials say they are currently in discussion with banks and supermarkets to expand payment locations. Recently, Tenaga has tied up with Nations Trust Bank Plc enabling payments to be made at the bank while the Colombo Municipal Council is exploring the possibility of opening a counter to accept parking violation fees.
Another user, Dasty Ismail complained that the parking machine while not providing him change also did not offer him a receipt upon payment. “This is serious fraud. I am surprised the Consumer Protection Authority or the CMC is taking no action,” he fumed.
Countering Ismail’s allegation of not providing change, Jayatilake responded that the ‘no change policy’ was not something new but a standard practice in all parking meters all over the world.
“There is no parking meter in the world that provides change,” the Managing Director exclaimed.
On the other hand, Director Operations at Tenaga Car Parks, Rehab Ariff said, if the money inserted by Mr. Ismail was accepted into the machine, this was a firm enough guarantee that the payment has been successful. While the gazette requires motorists to display parking tickets, Tenaga’s technology is designed in such a way that motorists who pay on the meter would not in any way incur a fine even if the ticket is not displayed, he assured.
No coins, notes only policy
“As far as the technology is concerned, it doesn’t need one to display it. It is automatically registered into the system and traffic wardens will be able to detect payments through their handheld devices. As a result, payers would never be charged a fine for not displaying,” Ariff said though elaborating that the law mandates users to display paid parking tickets as a formality.
He explained that the machine may not have been able to provide a receipt due to water being clogged as a result of heavy rains the previous day.
When questioned why the smart meters had been designed only to accept notes, but not coins, as it had disadvantaged users such as Suraj Pathirana who would have saved Rs.10 on motorcycle parking, Tenaga’s Managing Director said the machines being patented and purchased readymade “can only be stylized to some extent but not be totally changed to suit one country”.
“Again, nowhere in the world do parking machines have the option of accepting both notes and coins”, Jayatilake said.
On the other hand, CMC Director, Wickramaratne explained that during the tender process back in 2015, it was the CMC which decided to select Tenaga’s proposal to instal machines that accepted notes only.
“At the time, there were ample Rs. 10 notes in circulation but there was a shortage of coins. We were also hearing stories that the minting of coins are going to be more expensive than its face value. Given the situation, we projected the Central Bank would do away with the Rs. 10 coins and this was exactly why we decided on this,” the CMC Director said.
However, Jayatilake said he was hopeful that this issue will be resolved soon either by revising rates to fit the technology or introducing the planned smartcards linked to eZ Cash.
“Once the one card system for public transport is introduced in Sri Lanka, we can integrate the parking fee also into it, so that these minor glitches can be rectified,” he said.
Underscoring the fact the project is a ‘greenfield’ for both, Sri Lanka and even South Asia, both, the CMC and Tenaga have expressed their commitment to improve practicality concerns with experience, as time progresses.
“We had done some projections but when we actually got to the ground, we realized we won’t need so many machines.
We’ve kept it at 100 and in some areas we are using handheld devices like Point of Sale (POS), a machine which issues a ticket and is linked to the backend of our system,” Jayatilake said exhorting the difficulty of managing a novel operation.
He further said, as it was a public private partnership, there was no investment on the side of the Colombo Municipal Council.
“The CMC gave their parking slots they owned to us under a nine year concession, of which nearly two and a half years had been completed.
“We have invested around US$250 million up to now which includes the cost of installing around 100 machines and fixing the backend of the system which is essentially the nerve centre of this operation,” the chief of Tenaga added.