Everybody hates parking tickets. And parking meters seem like silent snitches, just waiting to catch parkers lingering a minute too long in a hard-found space.
Yet, deep down inside, drivers know the meters free up spaces that simply would not be available otherwise. The meters do that unless they are rendered useless by people who seek unlimited parking by vandalizing the machines.
Alec Akopov, the owner of Central Liquors at 917 F St. NW, says he calls the police almost every morning. And each morning, his complaint is exactly the same: Parking meter problems are hurting his trade.
He blames workers from construction sites on his block for hogging spaces by parking their cars for hours with impunity at meters with a half-hour time limit. He complains that some people jam meters near his store with broken nails, paper clips or wrappers so they read "FAILED." Then they put a sign or a bag on the meters indicating the malfunction and park as long as they please, he added. On a daily basis, his customers are left hunting for parking that's often farther away, Akopov said.
"People say they love the store, the selection and the service, but they can't come," he said.
Meter-tampering is the most pressing challenge facing the D.C. Traffic Services Administration, according to D.C. Department of Transportation spokesman Bill Rice. The city, which reaps $13.5 million per year in parking meter revenues, loses approximately $400,000 annually because of broken meters, Rice said.
The problem is especially severe in Adams Morgan, downtown and along Georgia Avenue, he said. Of 32 failed meters along Georgia Avenue and H Street recently repaired by the city in response to complaints, all had been intentionally broken, according to a June 20 e-mail from Robert Marsili Jr., support manager for the Traffic Services Administration.
Broken meters are supposed to be repaired by the city within 72 hours, a deadline Rice said is usually met. However, store owners may not even realize repairs have been done because "people will repair a meter and in a couple hours it will be tampered with again," he said.
New, solar-powered meters installed on M Street in Georgetown last week are more tamper resistant, have fewer parts to break and send out a signal indicating when they are broken, Rice said.
The newer models stand one to a block. When parking customers feed the meter, it issues a receipt that customers display on their dashboards.
Terry Lynch, executive director of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations, said the older meters "are a very poor piece of equipment."
"They are easily broken and enforcement is extremely irregular," he said. "I got in front of my office at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church a meter that is constantly failing."
According to Lynch, inspections by the Downtown Cluster of Congregations, a group that focuses on community service and civic issues, have found that in some areas, 30 percent to 50 percent of the meters have been broken or defaced. For example, almost 40 percent of the meters along a stretch of H Street NE were vandalized at the time of inspection, although the city has since repaired them, according to e-mail correspondence between Marsili and the Downtown Cluster of Congregations.
The city is now placing decals that are easier to read on meters, Rice said. The decals display a phone number to call for service, the meter number and the correct time limit, he added. Workers also are replacing windows on the meters that are dirty or broken.
The changes have made a difference, said Kevin Powers, owner of Carbon, a clothing and furniture store at 1203 U St. NW. The meter in front of his store was chronically broken until the city fixed it a few weeks ago. "When a meter goes into fail status, it creates ambiguity for the customer," he said, because customers are not sure if they can park at a broken meter.
There's also ambiguity when meters and parking signs conflict. In front of Akopov's store, the parking signs declare a 30-minute limit, while the time limit posted in the meter domes is two hours. Furthermore, one parking sign is twisted, making it virtually unreadable when driving up the street.
Two of 15 meters observed near his store are jammed. All the meters have new decals displaying their identification number and a hotline telephone number to report problems.
Since April, police have arrested at least 16 meter jammers, "from State Department employees to shop owners to students," according to a June 16 e-mail from Marsili to Lynch. The punishments ranged from community service to 10 days of suspended jail time and a fine of $250. Some cases were dismissed.
At least two surveillance and sting operations took place, one around the State Department and another near Howard University, according to Officer Junis Fletcher, spokesman for the Metropolitan Police Department. Meter destruction can result in theft charges and in a misdemeanor charge of destruction of government property, which can carry a maximum penalty of 180 days in jail and a $1,000 fine, Phillips said.