'Smart' meters

Parking meters on King Street are equipped with a card slot for use with the SmartCard Parking System. Below, Charleston Mayor Joe Riley holds SmartCards available to use in many city parking meters.

Charleston has ordered the equipment needed to upgrade the city's 450 remaining coin-only parking meters so that they also can accept SmartCards, and the city plans to install the devices in May.

Officials hope that once all of the roughly 1,800 parking meters on the peninsula are equipped to accept SmartCards, the use of the cards will become widespread.

In the more than 14 months since the city began offering SmartCards, 785 have been sold. The cards cost $5 and can be loaded with various amounts of money, similar to a gift card or prepaid debit card, and more money can be loaded onto the cards later.

The cards offer an advantage to those who use parking meters because any unused credit on the meter can be recaptured on the card. If a person with a SmartCard puts 75 cents on the meter for an hour of parking but decides to leave the spot after 20 minutes, they could get the unused 50 cents back by reinserting the card.

The savings from only paying for the exact amount of meter time needed eventually can offset the cost of purchasing a card.

Currently, the cards are sold only at the city's Department of Traffic and Transportation, 180 Lockwood Blvd.

"What we are working on right now is to outfit the (Charleston) Visitor Center to allow for the sale of the SmartCards there, as well as the recharging of those cards," Hernan Pena, director of the Department of Traffic and Transportation, said Friday. "We think we can make that happen in March."

Doing so would create a central downtown location where the cards could be purchased. Pena said additional locations could follow.

Some larger cities with similar systems make the cards available at retail stores.

If the cards are widely adopted in Charleston, they eventually could reduce the frequency with which the city must send out workers to collect change from the meters. Upgrading all the meters will cost about $130,000.

The 785 cards sold so far have, on average, been loaded with just under $40. That's the equivalent of about 125,000 quarters, which would weigh 1,563 pounds.