The politics, temptations of parking overhaul in D.C.


Parking is a scarce resource in the District. “And anytime you have a scarce resource, there’s going to be competition, conflict,” said DDOT Director Matt Brown. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)

Ah, parking. The ugly duckling of urban policy. So deceptively dull. Yet capable of such intrigue.

Political meddling. Ethical temptation. Rank hypocrisy. It’s all there.

For months, city officials have wrangled over a D.C. Council proposal to create a single new parking behemoth: one agency, instead of three, that would set parking policy, write tickets and handle the appeals by unhappy motorists.

The goal of D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) and other backers was to goose government overhaul in a realm they say has been slow to change. Advocates want better coordination among officials, smarter parking technology — and fewer careless mistakes, such as tickets sent to the wrong car owner.

The problem is that creating a Department of Parking Management would invite plenty of new problems, officials warn, including stymieing good overall planning, and the idea has faced pushback from a range of government officials and outside advocates.

Still, the debate appears to be speeding up some long-needed changes.

On Thursday, the District’s Department of Transportation went live with a digital tip box to help address one of the city’s most irksome parking annoyances: signs that trip up drivers by giving conflicting instructions on times that parking is allowed or other restrictions.

A choice for “Conflicting Signs” now joins “Rat Abatement,” “Pothole” and “Illegal Dumping” among the service requests on the city’s 311.dc.gov Web site and mobile app.

DDOT recently outfitted its sign crews with smartphones to document problems, and a pair of interns have plotted 7,500 signs on a growing digital map. Officials estimate that there are 750,000 to 1 million street signs citywide and say that a comprehensive digital accounting could eventually be used to power mobile apps to aid people searching to park.

Until then, pedestrian problems still rule.

City parking responsibilities are divided in three: DDOT decides who does and doesn't get to park where (at least when it’s not being overruled by the D.C. Council). The Department of Public Works handles the bulk of the enforcement, including writing about 1.5 million tickets a year, according to its director. And the Department of Motor Vehicles is responsible for adjudicating tickets.

Cheh’s Transportation Reorganization Act, released in April, would consolidate those responsibilities.

But yanking parking policy from the DDOT would be a “step backward in transportation management,” said City Administrator Allen Y. Lew, who opposes the move.

DDOT has the expertise to balance demands for who and what should be allowed in the precious spaces beside city curbs. Bike lanes? Bus lanes? Valet slots for restaurants? Spaces for builders’ bulldozers or food trucks? Extra travel lanes? “Regulation of parking in the District should not be isolated from other roadway management decisions,” Lew said.

DDOT Director Matt Brown said divvying up curbside space for everything from loading zones to residential parking is a difficult challenge. The watchwords, he said, are “incremental progress.” In recent years, DDOT has had “real accomplishments” setting up car-sharing networks citywide, sightseeing and intercity bus zones, and parking spaces for electric vehicles.

“Parking is a scarce resource. And anytime you have a scarce resource, there’s going to be competition, conflict,” Brown said, adding that policymaking should stay in his department. “I don’t want us to be shortsighted as we focus on issues where some may have felt we have fallen short to permanently make a change that I think would do real harm to the city,” he said.

At a discussion among officials at city hall Wednesday, DDOT’s chief of staff, Barry
Kreiswirth, appealed to critics to sharpen their focus on problems they hope to solve, rather than moving boxes on organizational charts.

“We’ve got to be focused on: Is it errors in parking tickets? Is it not enough focus on parking policy? Is it making adjudication more streamlined?”
Kreiswirth said.

The answer seemed to be: Yes. And then some.

An aide to council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) pressed DMV Director Lucinda Babers on how long it takes resolve problem tickets. An aide to council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5) pressed officials on why policies on residential parking permits are inconsistent in different parts of the city.

Cheh’s transportation aide, Andrew Newman, pointed to a series of shortcomings, including problems with DDOT’s attempts to roll out a system of streetside parking spots for people with disabilities and to issue visitor parking passes. Newman also cited years of DDOT delays in setting up a “performance parking” system in the Penn Quarter/Chinatown area, despite receiving a $1 million federal grant to do so in 2012.

The project is supposed to use sensors to guide drivers to open spaces — and to keep more spaces open by charging more during times of peak demand, such as on the express lanes on the Beltway in Virginia.

DDOT spokesman Reggie Sanders said later that the city has three pilot programs elsewhere in the city that adjust meter rates depending on demand and that officials “will build upon lessons learned from these pilots” for the federally funded Penn Quarter project. That effort requires “testing state-of-the-art technology to collect parking availability data and provide this information to customers in real time. . . . DDOT is in the process of selecting a firm to perform the study.”

Parking is an eminently political endeavor in the District, some officials said, adding many complexities to the perilous task of trying to cater to myriad demands for limited space in a fast-growing city.

Residential parking permits are one fraught area. They are meant to prevent commuters from parking on residential streets. But whether they’re loved or hated depends on where drivers live and where they’re going.

William O. Howland Jr., director of the city’s Department of Public Works, said broadening the system, as some want, means wrestling with the intense feelings he’s heard on the subject.

“Well, if you live in that neighborhood, that’s great,” Howland said. “If you don’t live in that neighborhood, and you’re trying to park, it’s horrible. Who came up with that idea?”

He says it doesn’t make sense to align residential parking permit boundaries with ward boundaries used for elections, as the council has required for decades. Instead, there should be about 30 or more much smaller districts that could help people park near their homes, which was the intended purpose, he said. Now, some people use their permits to commute within the unnecessarily large boundaries, he said, helping feed large numbers of calls from residents seeking more aggressive ticketing.

“You’re asking, why do we have these zones . . . this really ridiculous thing we do in one ward and we don’t do it in another ward, and a third ward does it differently?” Howland said. “Essentially what DDOT is forced to do is custom-make it for this ward and for this council member. . . . So it’s a political process. I worked for 18 years in Fairfax County for the Fairfax County government. It’s nothing like working in D.C. It’s far more political here than working in any other place I can imagine.”

Babers, the DMV chief, said it’s vital to keep a clear division between the people who write the tickets and the people who hear the appeals of the citations. While that falls to her department, she would be pleased to hand over that job to the city’s Office of Administrative Hearings, which was set up to handle such adjudication cases across the District.

“On almost a daily basis, I get e-mails and phone calls from people who want to go around the adjudication process,” Babers said.

“They will start off and say, ‘Your parking officer issued me a ticket.’ It’s so powerful for me to be able to say, ‘My agency doesn’t issue tickets.’ If I was the director of the Department of Parking Management and I could not say that, then the ethical pressures . . . would be so great they would blow the ethics out of the water, because of the structure of D.C.”

That and other arguments seem to be gaining traction, and council staff say the consolidation of parking functions is increasingly unlikely, though other efforts at reorganization are still in play.

Cheh, who chairs the Council’s Transportation Committee, said her goal has been to provoke creative thinking about the city’s management of transportation overall, including parking, and she’s not wedded to the particular language in her bill, which will be revised. Further sessions on overseeing the city’s transit plans, including the streetcar system, are scheduled for later this summer.

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Mike Laris came to Post by way of Los Angeles and Beijing. He’s written about the world’s greatest holstein bull, earth’s biggest pork producer, home builders, the homeless, steel workers and Italian tumors.
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