AUSTIN (KXAN) — The city of Austin is making immediate changes to the way you pay for parking because of an error uncovered by a KXAN investigation when a viewer turned to us for help.

“Parking in Austin isn’t cheap,” said Meredith Little, who often drives several hours from her home in Abilene to visit her daughter who attends the University of Texas at Austin.

In May, Little paid $29.25 to park from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. – a full day – at Pearl and West 25th streets in the West Campus neighborhood, records show. She couldn’t believe it when she was punished with a parking ticket even though she paid to park.

When asked what her first thought was after she saw it, she had a one-word answer.

“Mistake,” she responded.

Little entered her license plate information correctly in the Park ATX app, records show, except she added a hyphen where the state of Texas appears on her plate.

“It didn’t say anything about the hyphen,” Little said. “I’m just used to putting hyphens. There’s a natural break in the license plate numbers. So, I assumed that you’d put a hyphen in there.”

‘An Expensive Hyphen’

It turns out the city’s parking scanners see hyphens as errors. Little was ticketed for not having proof of payment. The city codes the violation as “pay station receipt not displayed.” Little called the courthouse to complain but says she was told she would have to wait a week. She went on a belated anniversary vacation with her husband to Hawaiian shortly after and admits she forgot about the ticket, missing the window to challenge it. She had to pay a $30 fine, records show, which she told the judge felt like being “robbed.”

Court staff told her she will “need to remove the hyphen (“-“) from within the vehicle profile in the app to avoid any further citations.”

“I’m pretty annoyed by it,” Little said. “Because, obviously, I did pay and it’s an error on their part. And, I think they have an app that doesn’t work correctly.”

Transportation officials admit there is an “error” in the system that causes the hyphen to not be recognized even when the rest of the plate is correct.

“So, the validation process, it has to be exact in the account,” said Austin Parking Enterprise Manager Jason Redfern.

“I would say it’s an error in our system,” he added. “And, while it’s unfortunate that it happened to her, it did bring to light that there is a system issue that we are working on right now.”

Following KXAN’s questions, the city contacted the app’s developer Passport, which put up a message to warn drivers not to enter special characters, like hyphens. The company is now working to disable the ability to do so.

“When entering your license plate, use only alphanumeric characters,” a warning on the app now reads. “Entering special characters may invalidate your session and lead to a citation.”

The warning message for people to not use special characters when entering license plates to pay for parking. Officials say KXAN’s reporting caused them to include the warning message.

“That was done because Ms. Little brought this to the city of Austin and KXAN,” Redfern said.

Despite admitting this was an “error” on the city’s end, Redfern says issuing Little a refund or parking credit isn’t possible since she paid to park and the fine was handled by the court.

In all, it cost her $60, but could have cost more if she was late paying the fine. At the very least, she’s found a little humor in it all.

“An expensive hyphen,” she said laughing.

Little is just glad her misfortune is now driving change.

“I’m really glad they’re fixing it,” she said, when told of the update. “It’s good news.”

Hyphen hiccups not being tracked

The city’s transportation department says this is not a common problem but admits it does not keep track of how many other hyphen hiccups there may be.

KXAN Investigates found tens of thousands of drivers received similar tickets for not feeding the meter in recent years, though that number has declined since the app was introduced two years ago.

Since January alone, our team found nearly 1,000 drivers challenged Austin’s parking tickets in court. Two-thirds of those tickets were tossed out, suggesting they were issued in error.

Since January, 984 parking tickets were challenged in court. Looking at the cases that were closed, KXAN found:

  • 494 cases were found not liable by mail after a hearing was held by email.
  • 124 cases were dismissed either by proof or by a hearing.
  • 32 cases were found not liable after a case was heard.
  • 6 cases were dismissed because the vehicle had been sold and not updated with the correct owner.
  • 105 cases were found “liable by law,” usually due to someone not responding in a timely manner, which is what happened to Little.
  • 80 cases were found liable meaning a case was paid or a hearing was held and the finding was liable or the person did not respond timely.
  • 28 cases were found liable by mail because the case was addressed by email.
  • 3 cases were found liable because a case was heard.

KXAN also pulled court records for parking tickets that were coded the same as Little’s ticket – “pay station receipt not displayed” – and found a decline since the Park ATX app was released:

  • 2021: 38,711 tickets were issued for the same violation.
  • 2020: 53,788 tickets were issued for the same violation.
  • 2019: 56,180 tickets were issued for the same violation.
  • 2018: 62,563 tickets were issued for the same violation.

So, how exactly do parking enforcement officers know if you paid or not?

KXAN was given a demonstration of how it works. Parking officers carry a handheld device, which they use to scan the registration sticker on your windshield. The sticker is linked to the meter and lets officers know, in real-time, if you paid or not and how much time you have left — down to the second.

“If it’s dirty, or it’s obscured, or there’s some sort of wrinkle, or something like that, in the registration sticker,” Redfern said, “they’ll be able to manually input the license plate number into the device.”

The app is a “powerful tool,” he said, before adding, “it can always be improved upon.”