On a busy afternoon at New York's Pennsylvania Station, passengers rush down the long corridor leading to the Amtrak waiting room, trailing bags and suitcases, and stopping to check the train schedules.
A middle-aged man wearing a beige windbreaker and black utility glasses parks a mountain of green bags in front of a kiosk that looks like an automated teller machine. He is oblivious to the baffling messages it flashes:
"The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious," the sign blinks. "Pay your property taxes electronically."
The man checks his watch, yawns, and then moves on.
The terminal is one of 25 new transaction kiosks, scattered in an experiment throughout New York City, that take credit and debit cards for parking tickets and property taxes.
Paying for government services on plastic is not new, but doing so at unmanned kiosks tests the limits of ATM-like machines with expanded functions like disbursing stamps, government benefits, civil service documents, and travelers checks.
While credit card companies and state governments see kiosk technology as one of the most innovative ways to accept these payments, consumers might not feel the same way.
Despite the flashy advances in technology meant to hook consumers, few people seemed to be nibbling, judging from sites visited over the course of two weeks.
And when they did, some prospective terminal users fumbled with the touch screens, but were unable to operate them and turned away, perplexed.
Metronet Communications, a subsidiary of Marina Del Rey, Calif.-based North Communications Inc., manages the kiosks in a program called Info/New York. The terminals were installed last August, but only started taking card payments in February. Two other companies, Goldenscreens America Inc. and Objectsoft Corp., manage 10 more kiosks that are primarily information terminals.
As part of New York's City Access program, the kiosks also provide information about the city, including detailed street maps, and telephone numbers for the mayor's office and other elected city officials. Users can also obtain civil service exams directly from the machines.
Metronet said the terminals will soon accept payments for fees and fines imposed by the Department of Consumer Affairs.
New York City is "on the leading edge in terms of what the country is doing," said Adam Parker, general manager of Metronet Communications. He said the terminals are a way to "help potentially reduce the bureaucratic swamp that New Yorkers typically have to wade through to conduct a transaction and to obtain information."
New York City has slated $2 million for the development of the program. Part of that money goes to pay a fee of $1,500 per kiosk per month.
Customers are charged a $3.50 "convenience fee" for every credit or debit transaction conducted over a kiosk, and the payment is recorded the next day at the appropriate office.
The Department of Finance, Department of Housing Preservation and Development, the New York Housing Authority, the Department of Citywide Administrative Services, and the Department of Consumer Affairs participate in the program, under the direction of the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications.
MasterCard International estimates that U.S. citizens pay the federal government about $300 billion a year. Property taxes, about $48 billion a year, make up about 75% of local revenues.
People paid the government 42% more with MasterCards last year than in 1995, MasterCard said. Use of MasterCard debit cards to pay property taxes rose 24%. The card association would not release dollar figures.
Visa U.S.A. said its cards were used to pay the government $6.2 billion last year, 150% more than in 1993. This year's total should be $7.5 billion, Visa said.
"Over the years, the number of bank cards is reaching a maturity point," said Armen K. Khachadourian, senior vice president, new market development, Visa U.S.A. "We need to find more and more utility for cards to maintain profitability for our members."
"Kiosk technology is very, very new," he added.
Experts said credit card companies and state governments must first win over consumers.
'Government wants to do more and more of its processing via machine, because it is cheaper," said Bruce Brittain, president of Brittain Associates Inc. in Atlanta, but consumers have "an underlying distrust that things will get processed correctly."
"The challenge in using these kiosks is to do things that allow people to trust more," he said.
"I didn't find it helpful at all," said Annara Mostret, on vacation to the United States from Johannesburg. She had no trouble operating the Penn Station kiosk, but she was looking for information on hotels.
Since November, Metronet said, 500 parking tickets have been paid using kiosks. That number is so small it's off the radar screen, as far as the city is concerned.
Its Department of Finance, which said it has accepted Discover cards for municipal payments since 1995, said that in fiscal 1996, which ended June 30, 9.3 million tickets for parking violations were issued and it collected $351.5 million.
North Communications uses PNC Bank Corp., Wilmington, Del., as the settlement bank, and it uses Transaction Network Plus, New York, to route the transactions to the appropriate network.
Paula R. Kramer, general manager of PNC Merchant Services, said it is "the strategic charter" of banks nowadays to "facilitate customer support and convenience" through such emerging technology as kiosks.
PNC has been working for the past six months with North to design the program. In addition, it has recently won several contracts from the state of Pennsylvania to process all credit card transactions for government agencies.
North Communications has set up similar networks in California, Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Utah, Washington, and in Australia, Canada, and Singapore.
"This is here, this is a tool, this is a way to pay parking tickets, and this is a way to get job information and civil service exams," Mr. Parker said, adding he is confident Metronet's kiosks "will see a significant increase in usage."