- The Washington Times - Monday, October 1, 2012

A D.C. Council member will introduce a bill Tuesday that reserves more than 10 percent of the District’s on-street parking spaces for disabled motorists, a “red-top” meter program designed to comply with federal law despite cutting into an already thin supply of curbside spots in the nation’s capital.

Mary M. Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat, said her legislation allows disabled motorists with valid placards to park by 1,800 clearly marked meters out of 17,000 on-street spaces in the District.

“Currently, if somebody is disabled, there are no reserved spaces for them to park on our streets,” Ms. Cheh said at a news conference Monday in front of the John A. Wilson Building. “Persons with disabilities have to fight for an on-street parking space just like everybody else.”

Under the proposal, anyone who parks at a red-top metered spot illegally would face a $250 fine.

The measure could set off controversy among members of the disabled population and the able-bodied population. Ms. Cheh even started her news conference by noting that “the demand for on-street parking exceeds the supply.”

Soumya Dey, an acting associate director at the District Department of Transportation, said the agency looked at best practices across the nation and established that roughly 10 percent would be an appropriate allocation of spaces for disabled motorists. About 24,000 D.C. residents hold valid disabled-driver placards, although the figure does not include the large number of commuters and visitors who flock to the city each day, officials said.

Pressed by reporters about the potential impact of taking a sizable chunk of space away from able-bodied drivers, Ms. Cheh said, “The Americans with Disabilities Act requires us to provide a similar opportunity in all realms of government facilities to the disabled as well as to those who are not disabled.

“So what we are doing is something that is required by law —but second, morally required as well,” she said. “We have to give the same opportunities to people who are disabled and people who are not.”

The bill is an attempt to correct the missteps of a red-top program that had to be stopped midstream in March through council action. It also replaces the “blue-top” meter system that offered free parking to the disabled, but which some able-bodied motorists abused “by fraudulently displaying handicapped placards on their dashboards in order not to pay parking-meter fees,” Ms. Cheh said.

Anyone could park at the blue-top meters if they paid, and now the blue tops simply designate places where it would be advisable for disabled motorists to park, according to the council member’s office.

The bill from Ms. Cheh, chairwoman of the council’s Committee on Environment, Public Works and Transportation, also mandates a survey of off-street parking garages and lots and requires any garage that is accessible to a person with disabilities to post a sign at its entrance. She plans to hold a public hearing on her bill on Oct. 15.

Derek K. Orr, director of the D.C. Office of Disability Rights, said allotting an ample share of parking to disabled residents is “the right thing to do” and the city should serve as a model for other jurisdictions. He noted that disabled residents are not able to take advantage of the numerous underground parking spots in city garages.

John B. Townsend, a spokesman for AAA-Mid Atlantic’s Washington office, said the 10 percent allotment of parking spots for the disabled is in line with federal guidelines and census figures, but that doesn’t mean everyone will be happy.

Under the proposed program, qualified motorists who park in the red-top spaces must pay like everybody else, but a 32 cent fee to pay by phone will be waived.

“It’s still a benefit because you get a parking spot,” Mr. Townsend said.

Members of the disabled community often have fixed incomes, so many of them will object to having to pay for a benefit that used to be free, Mr. Townsend said. He said the District’s problem is that it needs to devote more of its parking fees and fines to the city’s parking inventory.

City officials said Monday that they will monitor the location of the reserved spots to make sure they are sensible and work to expand parking options overall.

DDOT attempted to roll out a version of the red-top meter program earlier this year, but it “got off to what we can characterize as a fairly rocky start,” Ms. Cheh said.

The agency started to enforce the rules before many red-top meters were installed and before the program was fully explained to the disabled community and others. Emergency legislation that froze the red-top program has expired.

“What we have now is anybody can park at the meters as they’re designated,” she said. “This bill is going to change that.”

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