A disabled-parking placard and a red-top meter were to be part of a D.C. program to provide reserved parking for people with disabilities. In fact, the red-top meter program has not been enforced. (Michael Laris/The Washington Post)

Motorists have been abusing disabled parking permits in the District for more than 15 years, and city officials haven’t been able to stop them.

Now, after consulting for more than a year with advocates for people with disabilities, business groups and others, city officials are finalizing an overhaul they think can prevent the cheating and save reserved parking spaces for those who truly need them.

Officials would dramatically scale back the reserved parking system for the disabled, focusing on areas in the city’s center where they think the need is greatest. And, taking a cue from efforts to fight such fraud in other cities, people with disability parking placards would no longer be able to park free downtown.

The changes, outlined in draft rules and in interviews with city transportation officials, are an effort to clean up the bungled rollout of an expanded parking program in recent years, and they come after more than a decade of failed efforts at reform.

“We want the reserved spaces in the highly-sought-after, high-demand areas of the city, where we had probably the examples of the most chronic and widespread fraud,” said Leif Dormsjo, director of the District Department of Transportation.

Dormsjo says a smaller footprint would have been better from the beginning: “The program design should have been more narrowly tailored to the problem that the District was attempting to address” — ensuring that people with disabilities can park near crowded employment centers downtown where on-street spaces are perpetually scarce and turnover is limited.

The development of the existing system, from conception to implementation, was flawed, with officials variously describing the results as “bizarre,” “confusing,” “inane” and “illogical.”

In 2012, District officials added about 400 parking meters painted with red tops and intended only for people with disabilities. But the D.C. Council barred enforcement. Council members said they were blindsided by the effort and objected to the $250 fine for a violation of the restriction.

Since then, the spaces that were supposed to be reserved for the disabled have not been reserved at all and remain available to anyone who wants to park in them, baffling many drivers.

Meanwhile, lenient policies and limited enforcement have allowed opportunists — many using disability placards to which they are not entitled — to park free for much of the day at regular meters, sometimes taking up more than half the spaces along streets that parking enforcement officers derisively refer to as “Handicapped Heavens.”

Frustration with the program soared last year, with D.C. Council members decrying the “helter-skelter” addition of hundreds more red-top meters, sometimes inexplicably clustered in a block. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) proposed paring down the program to cover the city’s central area only.

Under draft rules that are being finalized, the number of red-top meters would be reduced by about 70 percent citywide — from 1,231 to 354. The precise figures remain in flux because changes may still be made on the basis of feedback that officials received during a public comment period.

The red-top meters that remain will, for now, be limited to the central business district, defined roughly as the area bounded by Massachusetts Avenue and D Street on downtown’s southern side, and 23rd Street NW and Second Street NE.

The rules call for, “when and where feasible,” one reserved space on every square block, or 4 percent of the spaces in the city center. (Even after the removal of 168 red-top meters downtown, officials say, the special meters account for about 5 percent of spaces.) Some meters that were bunched on particular blocks have been removed, and officials said they have worked to make sure spaces are no longer obstructed by fixtures such as tree boxes and bicycle racks.

Requiring everyone to pay for metered parking downtown also addresses a major logistical hassle that has thwarted enforcement there, District officials said.

Still, some say people with disabilities should continue to be able to park anywhere free.

“They’re segregating parking,” said Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Carolyn Cook, who represents Chevy Chase. Keeping the system the way it is would help low-income people with disabilities maintain “unfettered access to parking,” Cook said.

But backers of the change say that losing spaces to cheaters is bad for everyone, including those with disabilities. Under the District’s current policies, a car with a disabled parking placard hanging from its rearview mirror is allowed to park free at regular meters for twice the maximum posted time — for four hours instead of two, for instance.

But parking control officers say that, in practice, that makes enforcement onerous, creating greater opportunities for abuse. The officers say they need essentially to set the timer on a particular car and come back four hours later to see whether it is still there, a task that can be difficult, given the broad areas the officers cover, shift changes, technological capabilities and other factors.

And when some drivers saw that they could roll the dice and get free all-day parking by simply borrowing or photocopying a placard, fraud snowballed.

In a 2012 report, officials said they found 10 blocks where 40 to 90 percent of cars had the placards or special license plates. Some were near federal office buildings. Investigators also documented more than a dozen cases of District workers abusing the placards.

Under the draft policy, people with placards would be able to park at red-top meters for twice the allotted maximum, up to four hours, although they would have to pay. At regular meters in the central business district, they would have to pay and observe the normal time limits.

That change, plus the smaller geographic area involved, might resolve some of the enforcement challenges, District officials said. And it would undercut the financial incentive — up to thousands of dollars a year per cheating motorist — to commit fraud. With fewer people leaving their vehicles all day at red-top and regular meters, officials said, more people will have a chance to use the meters.

Fines would be $250 for unauthorized parking at a red-top meter and $500 for vendors who use the spaces, according to the draft rules. “These are not currently offenses since we do not have a red top meter program now,” DDOT said in a statement.

A broad public outreach campaign, including postcards being sent to placard holders, would come before any enforcement, said city officials, who are sensitive to the fact that poor communication helped to sink earlier reform efforts.

About 500 red-top meters elsewhere in the city, including along major thoroughfares such as Connecticut and Georgia avenues, would be converted into general-purpose meters, city officials said. At those as well as general-purpose meters away from downtown, holders of disability placards would still be able to park free, according to the draft rules. The city could redeploy some red-tops if a demonstrated need emerged.

Arlington County, Va., and Philadelphia are among the jurisdictions that slashed abuse by making all parkers pay. Within months of the change, disability-placard usage dropped from 30 percent of all metered spaces in Philadelphia to about 7 percent, indicating either a health “miracle” or a reduction in fraud, officials there said.

But D.C. resident Kelly Buckland, who is quadriplegic, said he fears the new rules will limit his access to the city. The red-top spaces will still be attractive to other drivers, he said. “There will still be incentives to park in those, because they are going to be reserved; they’re going to be open,” he said.

“The problem is there are just too damn many placards out there. A lot of people have them who, frankly, shouldn’t,” Buckland added, and he does not think the city is focusing enough on reducing those numbers. Many of the placard holders are from Virginia and Maryland, complicating the District’s efforts to control the numbers.

Buckland also is worried that not enough of the reserved spaces are van-accessible, with room for a wheelchair to roll down a ramp at the back of a van. DDOT says nearly two-thirds of reserved spaces are van-accessible, but Buckland expects heavy competition for them. Such spaces in private garages are also limited.

The mechanics of paying also pose a problem, Buckland said. “If I push my credit card in the parking meter, I can’t get it back out. I can’t grip it,” he said. A pay-by-phone system works for him, but it comes with a service charge.

A DDOT spokesman said the city “intends to waive the pay-by-phone transaction fee.”

Nosrat Gharah, a real estate agent from Virginia who pulled up to a meter downtown last week, said that making everyone pay makes sense to him.

“It’s fair,” Gharah said, although he acknowledged that his perspective is colored by his experience. “I’m saying that because I’m not disabled. If I was disabled, my attitude is different.”

Still, even an acquaintance of his has abused a placard, and that needs to be dealt with, Gharah said. “You have to have control of that,” he said.