BY TOM DALTON
---- — SALEM — The time-honored tradition of searching for a parking space with extra minutes left on the meter is coming to an end in the heart of downtown Salem.
Ground sensors were installed this week in parking spaces along Washington Street with new smart meters that will wipe out leftover time as soon as a car pulls out of a space.
“It’s one of life’s little pleasures, and they’re taking it away,” said Paula Graziani of Caffe Graziani, a Washington Street restaurant.
Graziani said her customers were discussing the subject at breakfast one day this week after noticing a contractor installing the sensors in the middle of parking spaces along Washington Street. Most of the diners weren’t happy at the thought of losing the free minutes, she said.
“I’m sure the bean counters have done their homework, and I’m sure we need the money,” she said. “But it just feels like we’re nickel-and-diming people.”
Although the ground sensors are new on Washington Street, similar smart meters with sensors have been operating — albeit with a few glitches — on Federal, Lynde and Church streets for months, according to Parking Director Jim Hacker.
“I haven’t heard anything,” Hacker said when asked if there had been complaints.
Hacker said the sensors are part of new technology being used in many cities. And, just to set the record straight, he said not every single minute of extra time is being eliminated here.
“When a person leaves the parking space, the meter resets to five minutes,” he said. “You can reset to zero, but we thought we would reset to five minutes to give a five-minute grace period.”
Hacker said the decision to go with the smart meters with sensors was made by a committee that recommended a number of changes and improvements in downtown parking. It was part of an overall strategy that included raising some rates and lowering others to get vehicles being parked for a long time into garages and to open up more spaces on busy downtown streets.
He defended the ground sensors and the loss of free minutes on meters.
“People should be paying for the time that they’re using,” he said.
Although some were surprised to learn of the new technology, not everyone was. A young couple parking at a smart meter on Washington Street on Tuesday seemed unfazed by the loss of the free minutes, noting that “they do that in Boston.”
To be fair, motorists will still be able to find leftover minutes on many downtown meters. Smart meters account for only 130 of the city’s nearly 600 parking meters.
Ground sensors aside, Hacker said the smart meters, which take credit cards or coins, are popular. Several local merchants agree.
“I love the smart meters,” said Laura Potter, manager of Gulu-Gulu Cafe. “That’s such a convenience for people.”
Curtis Caswell, manager of the Army Barracks, said they are better for customers — and for him.
“I don’t have to dole out quarters all day for customers,” he said.
Tom Dalton can be reached at email@example.com.