D.C. officials hoping to revive red top meter program unveil new proposal

District officials hoping to revive the city’s controversial red top meter program unveiled a new proposal Monday to reserve more than 10 percent of all parking meters for disabled motorists.

Under the plan, which would slash the number of on-street parking spots for non-disabled drivers, the District would install red meters throughout the city in areas near government buildings, restaurants and shopping districts. Only motorists with government-issued handicapped parking placards would be allowed to park at red top meters.

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At a news conference announcing the plan, D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) and officials in Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s administration said the new meters would cut down on fraudulent use of handicapped parking placards and make the city a national “model” for accommodating disabled motorists.

Transportation department officials hope to convert 1,800 of the city’s 17,000 parking meters to red tops — removing just under 11 percent of meters for general use.

“Persons with on-street parking have to fight for a parking space, just like everybody else,” said Cheh, who will introduce legislation authorizing the new meters at Tuesday’s council meeting. “For persons who have limited mobility, if the only available parking space is a few blocks away from their destination, a long walk from stores, restaurants or offices could be a very significant hardship.”

But Cheh’s plan, which comes before transportation committee Oct. 15, could still face hurdles.

Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), who represents downtown, said he was still trying to understand how officials determined that one out of 10 metered spots needed to be reserved.

“Many times, I go to places, parking lots at Safeway or the Target across the river, and those spots reserved for handicapped are largely empty,” Evans said. “If you reserve 1,800 spots and 1,700 of them are always empty, at a time when parking is such a premium for our downtown, you don’t want to find yourself in that mix.”

Council members will take up the proposal six months after they blocked a similar program from the District Department of Transportation in the spring.

Under that program, DDOT installed dozens of red top meters while ending long-standing city policy that motorists with handicapped placards did not have to pay parking meters.

Instead of allowing handicapped motorists to park for free, the Gray administration planned to reserve 1,100 red top meters with disabled drivers required to pay meters. Officials said the change was designed to reduce the motorists, many of whom don’t live in the District, who are using fraudulent handicapped placards to park on city streets for free .

DDOT’s previous efforts prompted a backlash from disabled activists and some motorists, leading the council to suspend the program in March.

Cheh said she hopes her bill, which requires quarterly public meetings on handicapped parking issues, would restart the program with less public opposition. But the legislation largely leaves the details of implementing the program to DDOT.

Soumya Dey, an acting associate director at DDOT, said the red top meters would be identified — both on the equipment and with an adjoining sign — as reserved for disabled motorists.

Disabled motorists would be required to pay, but the city would waive transaction fees on credit-card pay-by-phone payments.

“This program will increase turnover at all of our metered curbside spaces, which would benefit all drivers,” Dey said.

Evans, however, questioned whether the change will just lead to more confusion.

“What’s wrong with the system we have?” Evans asked. “You’re always going to have abuse and perceived abuse. But the question is, is the fix worse than the solution?”

 
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