San Fran orders smart meters

During the next year, San Francisco will replace its 23,000 parking meters

with high-tech, tamper-resistant smart units and implement a software-driven

management system that will provide maintenance and auditing data.

Serco Group Inc., an international outsourcing and management firm based

in the United Kingdom, won the $35 million city contract and began installing

the new electronic meters last month. It plans to finish by March. The city

has outsourced meter collection to the company since 1996, but retains maintenance

of the units.

Paul Carpmael, the company's project manager, said San Francisco's system

might become the model for meter collection in this country. "No one else

has really tried this before."

The new system is expected to improve the city's parking meter revenues

and reduce maintenance costs. About 1,700 meters are broken or missing at

any given time. Although no exact figures on lost revenues exist, Carpmael

said that they "wouldn't be surprised if it was $5 million to $7 million

a year disappearing through other means."

Historically, parking meters have been mechanical in construction, but

their moving parts wear down and become less accurate, he said, adding that

replacement parts are hard to find and are also more vulnerable to damage

and theft. Electronic meters have been around for a decade, but the product

has steadily improved.

Each of San Francisco's new meters - manufactured by subcontractors

MacKay Meters Inc. and Reino Parking Systems Inc. - contains a quartz clock

and an electro-mechanical lock. Each also stores data, such as total money

and a breakdown of dollars, quarters, nickels and dimes collected, Carpmael

said.

When Serco crews run their routes — collecting money from about 6,000

meters per day, five days a week — they will use handheld devices programmed

with specific codes that can only unlock a certain group of meters that

day, he said. If a device is stolen, it cannot be used to unlock other meters,

he added.

As collectors remove and store coins in a metal vault, the handhelds

download data, including the number and different kinds of coins collected.

They also download maintenance data, such as battery life.

The management system will be launched by the middle of next year, said

Carpmael, and will include an Oracle Corp. database with software developed

by Serco Integrated Transport, an affiliate of the contractor. It will be

tied to several city agencies that will be able to cull relevant information.

For instance, the citation department, in response to a citizen's dispute

about a broken meter, can quickly find out whether a particular meter was

functioning that day.

But overall, the management software is designed to verify meter collections

and add to the "total integrity" of the system — it will show what's actually

been collected matches what the meter says, said Carpmael.

By late 2003, the city will also start testing smart-card technology,

in which a citizen can use the same card for train fare or for parking meters,

he added.

Another interesting feature of the contract, which includes a five-year

warranty on all products, is that Serco has performance liabilities and

bonding that exceeds 50 percent of the contract's value in case there is

a loss of revenues. Carpmael said the system and performance contracts have

garnered interest from other municipalities looking to upgrade their systems.

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