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Nathaniel P. Ford Sr., Executive director of the MTA shows reporters how the new parking technology works at a late morning press conference outside the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Tuesday, Oct. 16,2007. (Laura A. Oda/The Oakland Tribune)
SAN FRANCISCO — Parking meters are so 1920s.

That's what U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters told a crowd of journalists Tuesday just off Van Ness Street after buying a little paper ticket from a newfangled meter that controls an entire block of parking spaces.

"Meter technology has remained unchanged since — can you believe this — the 1920s, when vehicle travel was a relatively new activity in American life," Peters said. "Back then, the early parking meter concept wasn't too much different from parking during the last turn of the century, when travelerswould tie up at a hitching post and throw a coin to the stablehand to watch their horse."

But, now the stablehand is artificial intelligence, the hitching post is wireless Internet parking, and the days of trolling for a parking space are, in theory, numbered.

All the well-equipped motorist will need to do is call up the parking system on a cell phone or hand-held computer, and the system will show where the empty spaces are.

A few clicks later and the space is reserved and waiting for the driver to arrive.

Payment will work the same way, and then some.

The parking meter would text the motorist's cell phone with a warning, and instead of having to sprint to the meter, the overdue parker can pay via cell phone, too.

"I can remember keeping the ashtray that I never used in my car full of quarters, just so if I found a parking space, I'd have some," Peters said.


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She predicted people would embrace the new technology the same way they now pay bills online and send text messages.

The new system, or one similar to that demonstrated Tuesday near the city's Transportation Management Center, will take two to three years to install and will be part of a comprehensive congestion-fighting program to be funded with a $159 million federal grant announced in August.

New York and four other U.S. cities also received grants to explore new ways to fight congestion.

The funding is tied to the city experimenting with congesting pricing — charging more for peak-hour driving — for the Doyle Drive approach to the Golden Gate Bridge.

That has been held up by the fact that the state legislative session ended Sept. 14 — too soon after the awarding federal grant project to seek the state's okay.

Now the city, Metropolitan Transportation Commission and Caltrans will either seek approval in the new session starting in January or possibly get the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District to tack the extra charges — estimated at between $1 and $1.50 for highest-traffic times — onto their existing $4 and $5 tolls.

Since she was appointed last year to replace retiring federal transportation chief Norman Mineta, Peters has been a vocal and passionate advocate of making drivers feel the pinch of road maintenance and overall economic costs of traffic congestion.

That has put Peters on the side of transit advocates and environmentalists, who have long sought to even the playing field between individual drivers — whose road use is far from covered by gas taxes and current tolls — and fare-paying transit users.

"When we pay for gas taxes, we're paying about 2 cents per mile," Peters said. But motorists are costing the road network and the area's economy between 50 and 60 cents a mile during congested times.

"By using congestion pricing," she said, "we're going to be able to pay more of the true cost that we're imposing on the system and on our fellow drivers, which will make other modes of transportation much more competitive."

Reach Erik N. Nelson at 510-208-6410 or enelson@bayareanewsgroup.com.