The only thing worse than not finding a parking space in Charleston is finding a parking space and then realizing that you don't have any change for the meter.

Of course, you can't blame the city for that. They converted all their nearly 1,700 parking meters to accept SmartCards two years ago.

The city has sold about 3,600 SmartCards since the program began, but how much they're actually being used is up for debate.

Only 4 percent of the city's meters, which would be somewhere around 68 of them, were paid for with SmartCards in October, according to Robert Somerville, assistant director of traffic and transportation for the city.

Four percent is not a huge number, but according to a 2006 report from the nonprofit Smart Card Alliance, a trade industry association, that's about typical for municipalities across the country.

When the study was published, West Palm Beach, Fla., had just rolled out a similar system for the same number of parking spaces as Charleston — 1,700. West Palm issued 12,500 SmartCards, about three times as many, but the difference there was that those cards were not reloadable.

Hurdles

There is a $5 fee to get the card, which has a microchip instead of a magnetic stripe.

You can gripe about the up-front cost, but remember that a ticket for a parking-meter violation is $14. Somerville wanted to remind motorists that having the SmartCard does not mean you won't get a ticket, because you still have control over how much time you put on the meter, and you can't exceed the meter maximum.

When you pay for the card, you also decide how much money you want to load onto it. The city provides brochures with a dollars-to-minutes conversion table.

When you park you add time to the meter in 20-minute increments. If you put on more than the minimum and you don't use all your time (provided you have at least 20 minutes left), you get that money refunded to your card.

Future expansion

One of the reasons cited in the report for the low usage rate is “the lack of an effective card distribution and reload infrastructure.”

You have to go to either Somerville's department or the Charleston Visitor Center to reload the card.

Ideally, it would be great to be able to add more value to the card online (as long as some hacker doesn't steal your bank information in the process). Somerville said the city is working with Park-O-Meter, which supplies the cards and the technology, to make that happen (not the hacking part).

In the meantime, his office also is hoping to add more locations for selling and reloading the cards, but it has to be the right type of place.

At least the Visitor Center at 375 Meeting St. is open seven days a week, so if you can't get to the parking department during weekday business hours, you have some flexibility.

Reach Melanie Balog at 937-5565 or mbalog@postandcourier.com.