The new company overseeing the Misquamicut State Beach parking lot (entrance above, circa 2009) is planning to invest in high-tech improvements. (Sun file photo)

WESTERLY — LAZ Parking, the new operator of the state beach parking lots, including the one at Misquamicut, will invest more than $580,000 in the eight facilities at the start of its new three-year contract.

The improvements are timed for the start of 2020 beach season. LAZ Parking will equip Misquamicut with an express lane for prepaid customers, creating an E-ZPass-style entry for those drivers. LAZ’s technology also will allow customers to buy seasonal and daily passes online whereas last year only season passes were available online.

"Considering that in 2019, DEM sold more than 200,000 daily passes at the eight state surf beaches versus 15,000 season passes at the entrance booths (out of a total 24,000 season passes sold), we’re hopeful that with a big marketing push before beach season, we’ll be to drive more customers to buy their daily and season passes online and get them into the express lane," Micheal Healey, state Department of Environmental Management spokesman, told The Sun on Tuesday.

After a competitive bidding process, DEM selected LAZ Parking to operate and modernize parking at the state beaches. The Hartford-based company manages more than a million parking spaces across the country for clients including California State Parks and Beaches and T.F. Green Airport. It intends to employ technology to speed up beach entry, expand online purchasing options, and track revenue in real time to ensure that fees are being collected accurately.

Last year DEM hired an engineering firm to study traffic going in and out of Misquamicut State Beach. The study was done after  town and emergency services officials raised concerns about summer traffic backing up on Atlantic Avenue and other roads

DEM rolled out online sales of season passes for the first time last spring. Building on that progress, DEM required that proposals for the parking business include upfront investments to continue the modernization of beach parking operations.

LAZ, which won the contract, will allow customers to buy both daily and season online passes in advance; created express lanes using license plate recognition technology for prepaid customers at some locations; and provide parking lot capacity data that DEM can use to communicate alerts when lots are at or near capacity. The technology will also capture visitation and revenue numbers in real time to ensure that the right fees are being charged and collected for every transaction. Many of the planned improvements have been proposed by town officials since 2017.

"The goal of this new contract is enhanced services to the more than one million Rhode Islanders and out-of-staters who enjoy our world-class beaches each year," DEM Director Janet Coit said in a news release. "What LAZ Parking promises to deliver starting in the 2020 beach season, however, is a great leap ahead in terms of improving traffic flow, improving the customer experience, and maximizing beach parking revenue. We will be monitoring the delivery and results closely, and we look forward to working collaboratively with LAZ Parking to deliver for Rhode Island."

Misquamicut in 2019 drew the most visitors of any state beach: 319,002 out of a total 1,098,378 beachgoers. This was Misquamicut’s second-busiest summer in the last decade. There were more beachgoers only in 2017 — 343,318.

Coit said DEM’s selection of LAZ Parking is in keeping with the vision of Gov. Gina M. Raimondo’s parks initiative, now in its second year. The governor’s fiscal year 2021 budget calls for increased funding for day-to-day park operations, and proposes a $64 million Beach, Clean Water, and Green Bond initiative. The bond would fund clean water, drinking water, and climate resilience projects along with a once-in-a-generation $35 million investment to continue the modernization of the state’s system of parks, beaches, campgrounds, bike paths, and other assets.

"Rhode Island is the No. 1 state in the country in visitors per acre of state parks and beaches," said Coit, noting that state beaches are one of the state's biggest tourist attractions, generating more than $115 million in spending every year. "However, we still rank 46th in state spending per visit, according to the National Association of State Park Directors. While we work to improve the long-term sustainability of our state parks, choosing LAZ Parking as our vendor is about improving the experience of visitors today."

A study conducted by PROS Consulting Inc. of Indianapolis and CHM Government Services of Massachusetts found that Rhode Island's beaches and state parks are among some of the top-ranked in the nation. The state ranked first in both visitors per acre and visitors per staff member, and saw a 37% increase in visitors per year from 2010 to 2017.

DEM received proposals from eight vendors. Half of the proposals were eliminated for failing to meet qualifications, according to the news release. A six-member panel made up of DEM personnel reviewed the technical aspects of the four remaining bids based on vendor qualifications, capability and capacity, the proposed work plan and approach, and cost. LAZ achieved the highest overall score of the bids submitted. Positive recommendations from existing LAZ customers helped reinforce the company’s winning proposal, DEM said.

Under the contract, LAZ Parking will receive an annual flat rate management fee of $872,536 in 2020, $989,531 in 2021, and $925,826 in 2022. LAZ also will receive a 35-cent-per-vehicle transaction fee for all paid vehicles that enter beach facilities during normal business hours from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.

The price of admission to state beaches will remain the same as last year. Residents will pay $30 for a season pass, $6 for a daily pass on Monday through Friday, and $7 for a daily pass on weekends and holidays. Nonresidents will continue to pay $60 for a season pass and daily fees of $12 (Monday-Friday) and $14 (weekends and holidays). Seniors pay reduced fees. Entrance to state beaches on foot or by bicycle is free. Fees are only charged to park a vehicle.

Other improvements at Misquamicut that will be ready for the start of the new beach season are the rebuilding of the concession stand at the state beach. The stand was damaged by fire in the fall of 2018.

LAZ has over 3,155 locations nationwide, including more than 1.2 million parking spaces, 13,100 employees, and 14 regional offices. The company serves more than 100 clients in the region, including T.F. Green, Providence Place mall, and the City of Newport’s parking meter system. Other regional contracts include Hartford Hospital and  Boston College. It also manages many high-volume beach locations including Daytona Beach and Miami Beach in Florida, Long Beach, Calif., and the California State Parks and Beaches.

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