Montgomery County’s limited options for paying for parking, besides using piles of quarters, shrank some more yesterday, as the county announced it will not longer support popular Parking Meter Cash Keys.


Photo by the author.




These keys allow drivers to load and store value on the key at a county parking office. When parking, the driver can insert the key into the meter, which will then deduct money every 15 minutes at short-term meters and 3 hours at long-term meters.  There is no charge other than a refundable deposit for the keys.

Many people use the cash keys instead of having to carry about $5.50 in quarters to park for a full day. But Tuesday morning, the county’s Division of Parking Management announced in a press release that the program will be discontinued. The keys will continue working in meters, but people will not be able to get new keys or add value to existing keys after Monday.

County spokesperson Esther Bowring stated that she does not have information about how many cash keys are in circulation, but estimated the number to be in the tens of thousands.

Bowring said the sudden discontinuation came because of a software glitch that the manufacturer of the cash keys (Duncan Technologies) was not willing or able to fix.  As a result, the county is transitioning to a new contractor for all of its payment-related services.

Other alternatives to quarters are limited

The county’s press release touts a “Smart Meter Debit Card” as a replacement for the cash keys, but these smart meters are only available in Bethesda. That means that the only non-coin option in the Silver Spring and Wheaton garages is a monthly “Parking Convenience Sticker” (PCS) that costs $113-$123 per month. This is not a valid option for residents that mostly use transit, but may need to drive occasionally.

New meters that accept credit and debit cards will be on street in Silver Spring “later this year,” according to the press release. It does not mention whether the credit card meters will also go inside the garages.

Cell phone payment is available in some garages, but not all. That’s because enforcement officers were not able to get a reliable wireless signal in underground garages, preventing them from verifying whether someone has parked with pay-by-phone or just has an expired meter. 

When the county rolled out pay by phone, to great fanfare in 2011 and 2012, I tried to park in a Silver Spring garage, but noticed the sticker denoting the space was missing. A parking services manager on the phone blamed this on homeless people vandalizing the meters (which seemed odd for a garage that was 3 stories below ground level.) But the “Go Park Now” (Now “MobileNow”) application did not recognize the number, meaning that, in fact, the county had not programmed it to work with those meters.

Officials could extend cell phone service inside the garages with “PicoCells” or “Network Extenders.” Residential versions are available from the mobile phone companies for approximately $250, and act as miniature cell towers that connect to a land line.

According to Bowring, county officials did examine this option, but initially ruled it out as each floor of each garage would need a separate unit for each mobile carrier. But now that the meter keys are not an option, she said that the county will revisit the possibility.

Though units suitable for garages plus maintenance will cost more than the $250 a resident would have to pay, it would be worthwhile for the county to spend some of its parking revenue to make the phone-based payment system work while Silver Spring residents wait for their transit center, Purple Line, Metropolitan Branch Trail, Bus Rapid Transit, longer VanGo hours or other long-promised alternatives to driving.

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Joe Fox has been a local resident for over 30 years, and currently lives and works in Silver Spring. He tries to travel around the area via as many modes as possible, including car, metrorail, bus, bicycle, kayak, and light aircraft. He works as an IT Program Manager, has worked as a traffic reporter in Washington and Baltimore since 2007, and is an active flight instructor in fixed wing aircraft.