D.C. visitor parking passes get new lease on life

September 23, 2013

The visitor pass program is for certain D.C. neighborhoods where parking is very tight. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)

In Monday’s online chat, a D.C. resident asked what to do about the impending expiration of the visitor parking pass. “Any info on how I can get a new one?” the commenter wrote. “I have visitors coming the beginning of October who will need it.”

People with similar concerns about the visitor pass program had been reading this for a while on the District Department of Transportation Web site: “The current pass expires September 30, 2013, and unlike previous years DDOT is no longer automatically mailing the pass to residents. Instead, residents will be required to apply for the pass through a simplified, user-friendly method made available through DDOT. In the coming weeks, DDOT will be providing details on when and how residents will be able to apply for a VPP.”

So for many D.C. residents, the timing was getting a little tight. Meanwhile, the D.C. Council was listening to other concerns about the new program, which it deemed not so simple. The council stepped in last week and passed emergency legislation that put the new program on hold. See a pdf of the emergency act, which the council passed unanimously.

Because of the council’s action, the current annual passes still will be valid after Sept. 30. For example, my chat commenter still will be able to give the pass to October visitors to use for street parking. The law says the city can’t issue tickets on the existing passes.

Residents also should watch the mail, because new passes will be mailed out. Those will be valid for one year, ending Sept. 30, 2014.

The free passes go to people in parts of the city that require Residential Parking Permits to stay more than two hours. The residents can hand the permit to a guest who can place the permit on the dashboard.

Visitor passes can be abused in various ways. For example, a resident could sell it or rent it to someone who lives outside the zone, giving that person a convenient, all-day parking spot. Tightening up the program was supposed to be part of a broad revision of the District’s street parking system.

Reggie Sanders, spokesman for DDOT, said the department had developed a program to keep better track of the visitor permits. Instead of waiting for the passes to arrive in the mail, residents would have to go to the DDOT Web site and register for a pass. The applicants would need to provide proof of residency.

The pass itself would contain a holographic image, making it more difficult to fake. And it would contain an identifying code, tying it to the D.C. resident who had applied for it. The pass could be voided if stolen. If residents of the block noticed that a pass was being abused, they could report that to city officials, who could trace the pass to its registered owner. Sanders said DDOT still hopes to implement the program, but will work with the D.C. Council.

The council didn’t like the idea of replacing the current automatic mailing of passes to qualifying residents with what it called a “clumsy, one-size-fits-all policy.” Some people who wanted the passes would be inconvenienced by the need to apply, rather than just wait for the pass in the mail. In some communities, the council said, the issuance of passes could overburden blocks where parking is extremely scarce.

Tightening up on the street parking system, making it more fair and less subject to abuse, is a good idea. And DDOT has spent a lot of time working the public and other city agencies on exploring goals and strategies. But when it comes to implementation, the city stumbles.

Curious visitors still note the presence of red top meters on downtown streets. These were supposed to be part of a new, more equitable system to allow parking for people with disabilities. The council heard concerns about that program as well, and put it on hold in March 2012. It has yet to be revived.

This is not a good pattern. The city’s parking problems are real, the solutions proposed go in the right direction, but the public raises issues about the details that don’t seem to get resolved.

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region.
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Mark Berman · September 23, 2013