Though an effort to update downtown San Mateo parking meters and pay stations and install signs guiding drivers to available parking on streets and in garages has been in the works for years, the planned parking improvements are currently on hold as city officials pursue a waiver for steel requirements included in a federal grant funding the project.

At its May 7 meeting, the City Council rejected three bids received earlier this year from vendors hoping to construct the project because the steel and iron components did not meet the Buy America requirements included among the stipulations for the federal grants awarded to the city for the project through the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, said city parking manager Sue-Ellen Atkinson.

Atkinson said officials are now in a position to initiate a waiver process — which they estimate could take up to eight months — with the Federal Highway Administration to exclude pay stations, meters and other steel or iron components included in the project from the Buy America requirements. She said officials are hopeful the effort will make the federal funds available for the project, but are exploring other funding options just in case.

“It’s federal funding and really was an opportunity to use federal funds for a project that would be very useful for the downtown and enables us to do those projects without spending city parking or general fund money,” she said.

Estimated to cost $2.3 million, the project would replace outdated parking meters and pay stations with new pay stations allowing multiple forms of payment, install digital signs with real-time parking data on downtown parking garages and improve the set of signs guiding drivers to downtown public parking, said Atkinson. She said the improvements were pegged by downtown visitors who offered feedback to the city’s downtown parking management plan adopted in 2014, and were also needed to update aging equipment such as meters that only take coins.

Though the city has been upgrading meters and older pay stations in a piecemeal fashion, the technology project would allow for a full upgrade of the payment systems so visitors can use cash, credit cards or their mobile phones to pay for parking at the same set of pay stations no matter where they are downtown, said Atkinson. Combined with improvements to the signs guiding them to downtown parking garages and digital signs at the garage entrances showing the number of spots available, she said the changes are expected to offer drivers more flexibility when they park.

“We’re hoping for a more customer-friendly, easy-to-navigate parking experience for the whole downtown,” she said. “We’re really looking for a streamlined experience that’s as easy and functional as possible.”

Atkinson said the improvements could be linked to a separate project to install digital signs with parking garage data at commonly-used intersections where drivers enter the downtown. That parking garage data would also be shared on mobile parking applications and websites. She said procurement and installation of the improvements are expected to take about a year once funding is finalized and a vendor is selected.

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