These ‘dumb’ meters will soon be extinct in Chinatown. (Michael Williamson/The Washington Post)

The District’s transportation department, with the help of a federal grant, is approaching this Holy Grail. They’re sort of at the point in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” where Indy has made his way to the Canyon of the Crescent Moon but has yet to run the gauntlet of tribulations before claiming the grail. I digress.

The $1,090,000 grant from the Federal Highway Administration will allow the city to roll out a pilot parking management system in the Chinatown and Penn Quarter neighborhoods. It will involve installing 1,000 sensors capable of detecting whether parking spaces are occupied and 30 traffic sensors to monitor congestion, as well as replacing 200 standard parking meters with new “smart meters” whose prices can be adjusted on the fly.

The variable pricing is key. That’s how you make sure the spots stay open. The laws of supply and demand are such that there is some price, even during the height of the business day, where potential parkers will be dissuaded from occupying so many spots in a given area that no one else can park there. In its grant proposal, the city stated its goal is to make at least one metered space per “block face” available at all times.

Yes, parking will be more expensive under most circumstances, but it will be there when you need it: Such is the essence of “performance parking,” the buzzword for this type of system.

But this pilot will go beyond the performance parking setups already seen in some D.C. neighborhoods. Because the Chinatown system will include sensors for every parking space — actually three sensors for every two parking spaces — it can adjust prices in real time and actually pinpoint where the open spaces are and direct drivers to those open spaces via a mobile app or other technology. Do that, and you can cut down on the estimated one-fourth of downtown congestion caused by people cruising around for parking.

This concept is not entirely new. A similar system has been rolled out in San Francisco, with encouraging results, and New York is exploring the concept.

There’s a catch for the average driver. The D.C. transportation department is focusing its early efforts not on citizen parkers, but rather commercial parkers — delivery trucks and other vehicles that often foul up rush hour streets by circling, double-parking and otherwise behaving badly. The pricing is meant to shift deliveries to off-peak hours and to “encourage efficient use of curb space” by intercity buses. Those commercial operators, it appears, will get access to real-time parking availability data before the general public does. The general public, while not being able to pinpoint parking via app, will be paying the variable rates.

John Lisle, a spokesman for the transportation department, said the system could be rolled out as soon as the end of the year. The grant application contemplates nine months of planning once the project kicks off before the system is actually operational.

A footnote: There’s something in this for bike riders, too. The city is proposing to convert the existing parking meter poles into bike racks, greatly increasing the amount of cycle parking in a part of town that sorely needs it.