1. Ca(2+)-dependent phosphorylation of the myosin regulatory light chain (MRLC) initiates cross-bridge cycling and contraction in smooth muscle. A four-state cross-bridge model, in which Ca(2+)-dependent phosphorylation is the only proposed regulatory mechanism, can predict the mechanical output of the swine carotid media. Our aims were to determine whether ATP consumption rates and the economy of force maintenance are regulated functions of MRLC phosphorylation as predicted by the model. 2. Steady-state force and oxygen consumption were measured in medial rings of swine carotid arteries activated with depolarizing solutions and agents capable of maintaining a wide range of steady-state myoplasmic Ca2+ and MRLC phosphorylation levels. 3. Suprabasal ATP consumption increased almost linearly with MRLC phosphorylation and exhibited a hyperbolic increase with active stress, as predicted. 4. The economy of stress maintenance fell with increases in suprabasal phosphorylation. 5. In absolute terms the energetic cost of covalent regulation by cross-bridge phosphorylation was small, although it may be a significant fraction of the ATP consumption associated with contraction.