How many times have you come back to your parked car to find a red surcharge ticket welcoming your overdue return? Hopefully you paid the LL10,000 ($6.6) charge within the 10-day time limit, lest it increase incrementally to a $26 fine and then $66, which you will inevitably have to pay when your car goes through the annual Motor Vehicle Inspection, or “Mecanique” as it is known. Behind those parking meters is a private company working alongside the public sector and there are substantial funds involved, and perhaps this is the reason behind their efficiency.
The beige parking ticket you get from the Ministry of Interior for parking in an illegal spot is a different story. If you forget about this ticket, the ambiguous method of collection will not soon hold you to account. And, human nature being what it is, we tend to abide by the rules when we know there is no escaping the consequences, and break them when we know we can get away with it.
Solving the parking problem
According to Rachid Ashkar, council member of the Municipality of Beirut, the decision to install parking meters as one of the solutions to the parking problem in the city was taken by the Municipality of Beirut, in collaboration with the World Bank, which loaned the funds for the project, back in 2000. In 2002, the Council for Development and Research (CDR) took on the role of consultant for the municipality and began the bidding process for an operator for the parking meters. Chafik Sinno’s Duncan-Nead won the bid for Greater Beirut and in 2004, he signed the agreement with the CDR and the Traffic Management Office (an autonomous entity under the Ministry of Interior, currently headed by Farjallah Srour). Finally, in 2009, the first parking meters were installed in Beirut.
“Four years into their installation, and with 643 parking meters in operation in Greater Beirut for 4,500 designated parking spots, phase one is complete,” says Ashkar. “We are now entering phase two, which includes installing 125 new meters, still in commercial areas and including the Corniche.”
According to Ashkar, the Corniche, due to its public appeal, will follow a different formula that will include having free parking on the weekends. Phase two will also include the introduction of different payment options through credit cards and through Short Message Services (SMS).
Pay and park all day
To ensure availability of space, the maximum parking time is set at two hours, but for those who park all day to go to work or university, there is the option of the $6.6 surcharge. “The $6.6 surcharge is not a penalty, or a punishment, it is an option to park all day against a certain fee,” says Ashkar. “This surcharge ticket can be used in different parking spots during the same day without paying a fee again. This service spares you from the valet and from the many parking charges you encounter on a typical day. To obtain this surcharge ticket, simply leave your car without paying the charge.” He adds that phase two of their project will include a media campaign promoting this surcharge ticket as people are unaware that it is not a fine. Part of this campaign, according to Ashkar, is to change the surcharge ticket’s color from the negative red to a neutral blue, and to add an explanatory sentence outlining that one can park all day anywhere using this ticket.
Fines and penalties come into play when the surcharge fees are not paid in the assigned time period. “Since everything is computerized, it is very easy to keep track of each and every misdemeanor. All outstanding charges are sent to the Mecanique Department and one pays them along with the car inspection fees,” says Ashkar. As soon as a surcharge ticket is issued and the controller takes the picture using his hand-held computer, an automatic notification is sent to the Traffic Management Office’s system and then the ticket’s charge is automatically increased if not paid in time and is finally sent to the Mecanique.
With an average of 116 coupons sold per designated parking space per month, and with 4,500 surcharge tickets issued per month per machine in Hamra alone, it is no surprise that the total revenue from the parking meters in Greater Beirut is $60,000 per month. The obvious question which comes to mind is: where does all that money go?
“The parking meter charges are collected by Duncan-Nead and given to the Traffic Management Office, which is the operator of traffic lights and parking meters in Lebanon,” says Ashkar. “The office uses the money generated from parking meters installed in Greater Beirut for the maintenance of those machines, and also for the maintenance of traffic lights which don’t bring any revenues of their own, but use those of the parking meters.”
“After the maintenance is done and needed spare parts are bought by the Traffic Management [Department], the rest of the money goes to the treasury of the respective municipalities, which should use it to increase the capacity of the parking meter system in their area,” adds Ashkar. He is quick to point out that Duncan-Nead is merely the manager of the parking meters in Greater Beirut, and has a contract upon which it receives a monthly income from the Traffic Management Office in return for its services regardless of the meters’ output. “This fee is based upon the number machines it is operating and the number of employees it has on them and does not come out of the meters’ revenues,” says Ashkar.
Automation without wasta
Ashkar believes that the secret behind the success of this system lies in it being automated. “It has been proven that once there is no personal access to cancel or interfere in any operations, machines don’t have wasta (personal favors),” he says, and wonders why the Ministry of Interior does not equip police officers with a computerized system for the illegal parking spots. He acknowledges that traffic police officers have 10 kilometers under their supervision while the parking meter controller has only 400 meters, and so it is very difficult for the police officer to maintain control.
The antiquated system
Colonel Joseph Moussallam, head of the Media and Communications Department at the Ministry of Interior, agrees that the ministry is understaffed. He says ministry employees issue 250,000 beige tickets annually for illegal parking, and a high percentage of them are unpaid. “Just sorting the tickets out at the ministry takes time since the process is a manual one,” says Moussallam. “The purpose of the ‘no-parking’ spots is to reduce traffic jams, and in parking illegally one is effectively closing down a lane meant for drivers.”
Once a parking fine is issued, one has a period of 10 days to pay it, though it stays in the Ministry of Interior’s Traffic Management Office for a month before it is moved to the judiciary court.
“The judiciary court receives thousands of tickets per month, and because it also has no computerized system, it takes months and even years before a court decision is issued, and by that time the verdict could be for the ticket to double or triple in monetary amount,” he says.
Moussallam believes that in order for fines to be effective, they must be implemented promptly, otherwise people forget about them. As examples, he cites changes of address, and sometimes of country of residence, as reasons why people don’t hear about their parking tickets for years after they receive them.
“Judges have up to four years to issue a verdict before the ticket becomes absolute, but a lot can happen in the citizen’s life during that time,” says Moussallam.
Some people recount receiving tickets for cars they had already sold or having to pay exuberant amounts for tickets they don’t recall receiving. Others boast about years of not paying parking tickets and never hearing about them again. The longer one waits to pay the beige tickets, the higher the fine usually gets and it seems the main beneficiary from the increased fines is the judiciary court.
“If a ticket is paid on time, 20 percent of the amount goes to the security forces, 20 percent to the municipalities’ treasury and 60 percent to the Ministry of Finance. However, if payment is late and it goes to the judiciary court, then 55 percent of the charges, including the late penalty, go to the judges’ treasury and the remaining 45 percent is distributed among the aforementioned factions,” says Moussallam.
Yet he is optimistic about the future, mainly because of the new traffic laws which are now in the process of being decreed. “The new laws will be modernized, especially the ones involving the radars for the speeding tickets,” says Moussallam. “We will also be sterner with higher fines, and increasing the scale on penalties for not paying on time. For example, the charge for illegal parking is going to increase to $33.” The system will remain un-automated however, as the budget cannot accommodate the expense.
Man vs Machine
In this battle of man against machine, it is clear that the machine is the winner. The Ministry of Interior and the judiciary court need to have an automated system for their parking tickets, similar to the parking meters’ system, or risk being drowned in paper work — that is, if they are still able to find a spot to park their car and make it to the office.