By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 22, 2009
Maricruz MaGowan, an economist who lives in Bethesda and works downtown, considers the District's aggressive parking enforcement program a hidden commuter tax.
"This is their way of assessing a tax to drive through D.C.," MaGowan said this week as she paid a $50 ticket, which she got despite racing to move her car before rush hour. The citation indicates that she was four minutes late. "They target drivers from Maryland and Virginia. If they need the money, enact a tax on drivers who use the streets, but do it openly. This is ridiculous."
Sandra Aull, who lives in Columbia Heights, says the parking enforcers are just as ruthless on city dwellers.
"When you live around here, you get tired of the tickets," Aull said. "It makes it hard to have a car. Every little thing, they give us a ticket for."
Over the next year, hundreds of thousands of commuters and D.C. residents could experience similar frustrations as the city prepares for a major expansion in its parking enforcement.
The campaign, which comes as the city attempts to close an $800 million shortfall, will target night owls who swarm into neighborhoods on the weekends, residents who don't have parking permits for specific neighborhoods and anyone who lives on a street that is cleaned weekly by a street sweeper.
The District now issues about 1.5 million tickets annually -- 70 percent to motorists who live outside the city -- not counting red light and speed camera citations. That's more than triple the number of parking tickets issued in Baltimore. Parking control officers in the District, population 600,000, write about half as many tickets as those in the city of Los Angeles, population 4 million.
But in fashioning the city's fiscal 2010 budget, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) and the D.C. Council embraced proposals that could send ticketing rates soaring even higher.
City leaders project that attaching cameras to street sweepers will reap 237,000 more tickets in fiscal 2010. The cameras will take pictures of vehicles that have not been moved for street cleanings, and the city will mail $30 tickets to violators.
The tickets will generate about $7 million, but Fenty said it's not the money the city is after.
"It's really about clean streets and quality of life, but you also have to assign some budget numbers to these things," said Fenty, who has not approved the city budget.
The sweeper cams are just the beginning.
The D.C. Council also agreed to hire 45 parking control officers, a priority of council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), head of the Committee on Public Works and Transportation. Some of the new officers will concentrate on city neighborhoods, and others will work past midnight on the weekends writing tickets in such entertainment districts as Adams Morgan.
The 25 percent increase in parking control officers, which Graham said residents have been clamoring for, is projected to raise $12.6 million annually.
Graham said the additional revenue is needed to fund affordable housing programs and other priorities, such as subsidized pre-kindergarten.
Just as important, he said, stepped-up enforcement will mean cleaner streets and fewer illegally parked cars in crowded neighborhoods.
"I was only willing to take the heat so we can have this money for low-income subsidies," Graham said.
Officials at AAA Mid-Atlantic, who deem the District the most "motorist-unfriendly city" in the nation, are critical of the new enforcement efforts. By using parking tickets to help balance the budget, enforcement officers will be under pressure to write even more tickets, AAA officials fear.
"This is part and parcel a war on the motorist," said John Townsend, a AAA spokesman. "It's a sneak tax and a sneak attack on motorists and tourists. . . . They are trying to make the District a car-free zone."
Graham calls Townsend's concerns "absurd," noting that city residents often complain that they can't find parking near their homes. "Cars are not a threatened species anywhere in the world, and certainly not here," he said.
Nancy Shia, Advisory Neighborhood Commission member in Ward 1, said she supports efforts to crack down on nonresident parking violators but worries that some of her neighbors will be hit with even more tickets.
"To a degree, I think enforcement is good, just because enforcement of all rules is good, but I got neighbors who will complain" about the tickets, said Shia, who lives in Adams Morgan. "People need to learn to use public transportation."
The new enforcement comes on the heels of city officials' decision last fall to increase hourly meter rates to $2 in high-traffic areas downtown. The council and mayor also eliminated free parking on Saturdays in many sections of the city. And the city has embraced a license plate recognition system, which makes it easier to find and "boot" cars whose owners have outstanding tickets.
In recent months, some council members have heard from D.C. residents who had been ticketed for parking in their own driveways. Linda Grant, a spokeswoman for the Department of Public Works, said the city technically owns the strip of land between many houses and drivers are not allowed to park "beyond the building line." But she said the policy is under review.
Council member Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large), who voted to approve the budget, said he is hearing from drivers who are getting parking tickets while sitting behind the wheel at an expired meter or in a no-parking zone.
"Catching people who park illegally is one thing, but we have to monitor this very, very carefully to make sure it's not abusive," said Brown, chairman of the Economic Development Committee.
In MaGowan's case, she swears she didn't deserve the $50 ticket.
MaGowan, who works for the Environmental Protection Agency, said that a few weeks ago, she moved her car from 13th Street, near New York Avenue, about five minutes before 4 p.m. to abide by the 4-6 p.m. rush period restrictions.
A few blocks away, while looking for another parking spot, she noticed a ticket on a windshield, issued at 4:05 p.m. Unsure how she would prove her claim that the ticket was issued prematurely and unwilling to navigate the bureaucracy to fight it, she decided to just pay up.
"I figure I use their roads, so I will just contribute to the District," said MaGowan, who has gotten more tickets in recent weeks after years of a clean parking record.
Motorists say the maze of signs outlining parking restrictions are so confusing it's hard to figure out whether one can park without breaking the law.
Consider the array of signs in the 1300 block of Kenyon Place, a residential street near the bustling Columbia Heights shopping district:
According to three signs on the north side of the street, Zone 1 permit holders are the only ones allowed to park between 7 a.m. and 8:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
But no one is allowed to park on the north side between 7 a.m. and 9:30 a.m. as well as from 4 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. There is an exception to that rule from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday.
On the south side, there is a two-hour parking limit without a Zone 1 permit from 7 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. But there is no parking during street cleanings from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday.
"They give out tickets on this street every day, all day, all up and down the block," said David Williams, 60, who lives there.
"That is why I can't have a car -- because I would never be able to park."