A new “smart meter” parking system for downtown Olympia looks like another small, but good step toward making the city core friendlier for visitors.

It also avoids the cost shocks seen with previous city parking adventures.

Once the upgrades are wrapped up this month, visitors will be able to download a pay-to-park app to their cell phones, then pay by scanning the coded sticker on the parking meter. All can be done without digging for change or a credit card – although payment with coins remains an option.

Electronic meters in two-hour zones already let motorists pay for parking easily. A person just needs to swipe a credit card or feed in coins.

But parking in three-hour or nine-hour zones has still required coins. That hassle ends with the meter upgrade.

Those who download the app are able to top up a meter remotely by phone if their lunch or other appointment runs longer than expected.

A city web portal accessible by computer or phone also will let residents purchase parking permits, pay citation fines, or ask for a hearing to appeal a ticket.

So far, the Olympia Downtown Alliance merchants group is upbeat about the upgrades. We also hope this system works as planned.

The current upgrades should make the city’s management of parking a tad easier, too. For example, parking enforcers can stop hand-entering car license data and instead are using a license-plate- recognition technology to automatically read plates and check for permits.

Costs for the upgrade are just $97,580 for new equipment and professional services to run them. Hosting services for license-plate software will run about $70,000 per year more, according to Pam Fant, a supervisor of city parking services.

Past efforts to improve downtown parking were more costly and not so smooth. The first electronic pay stations lasted two years, proving so unpopular by 2012 the city had to replace them. The replacement meters were far better. These also allowed payment by credit card but were fairly easy to use.

The first pay stations cost about $725,000 to install, and the replacements were estimated in 2012 to cost another $683,000, according to news reports at the time in The Olympian.

Smart-meters are just one of many ongoing improvements under way in our downtown. One change coming in June, which we welcome, is the return of limited police walking patrols during evenings.

The patrols are funded by the public safety tax measure approved by voters last November.

The city also is taking numerous steps to address homelessness and respond more effectively to people in crisis on our streets. One big step in the works is a mobile mental-health response unit funded by the public safety measure.

Another step is to build low-income housing and provide mental health treatment using a separate tax that voters approved early this year.

Stay tuned.

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