Welcome to downtown Raleigh and the end of free parking as we know it. Perhaps you have questions:
How will the fancy new parking pay stations work? What will it cost to park, and how will you pay?
Don't ask city officials for this basic information. They're full of unreliable answers.
The brave new era of paid parking had an inauspicious start last week on West Hargett Street, where Mayor Charles Meeker unwrapped the first three pay stations.
A manufacturer's representative stepped forward to demonstrate their use for TV news cameras.
Duke Hanson, a vice president for Milwaukee-based Duncan Solutions, whipped out his green American Express card to show that, for the first time in Raleigh, you can pay for on-street parking with a credit card. That looked sort of cool, but ...
Oops! Hanson's card was rejected. The Duncan pay stations, which cost Raleigh $6,000 apiece, accept Visa and MasterCard only. They don't take American Express.
Old-style coin meters either display red "EXPIRED" flags or show how many minutes remain from your own payment, or from a previous parker's payment. That helps you decide when to feed the meter another quarter.
Gordon Dash, Raleigh's parking administrator, told the Road Worrier that with the new pay stations, motorists will not see how many minutes they have left. That sounded like a bummer, but ...
Oops! Fortunately for all of us, Dash was mistaken.
Actually, you'll be able to get this information at any of the 173 pay stations to be installed downtown in coming weeks.
Even if your car is parked a few blocks away, you'll just punch in the number of your parking space.
The first thing you'll see is either the word "EXPIRED" or a digital clock, counting down the minutes and seconds of paid parking that remain for your car.
Unless you already have paid up to the full time limit - for example, in some spots you can buy only up to 60 minutes' parking time - you'll be able to buy more minutes.
There's an exception for cars with handicapped-parking placards or license tags. State law lets folks in these cars ignore parking time limits.
Raleigh's new pay stations will give them the option to press a button identifying them as handicapped. Then - even in zones marked for 15 or 30 minutes - they'll be permitted to pay for as many hours as they need. (At least, that's what city officials say they'll be able to do.)
What do the pay stations look like? What are the parking fees? This should be easy.
Jayne Kirkpatrick, the city public affairs director, gave reporters sheaves of brochures and photos of the new machines. Some of the pictures were posted on the city's Web site ( www.raleighnc.gov), with instructions for users. That seemed helpful, but ...
Oops! Wrong photos! The official city photos show machines that take payment by cell phone. Raleigh's pay stations do not accept telephone payment.
And the official photos show parking machines that charge 50 cents an hour.
Actually, an hour costs $1. Payable with coins or credit cards. No paper currency. No change. No receipts.
When will everybody who parks on downtown streets start paying for the privilege? City officials have suggested different dates stretching into mid- or late April.
The first three pay stations are now in use in the 200 block of West Hargett Street. More machines might go into operation around Fayetteville Street as soon as early March.
At least, that's what city officials say.