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New placards aim to beat disability parking cheats

The state's new 'meter-exempt' disability-parking placards will be distributed starting next year. They are expected drastically reduce number able-bodied cheaters

The state's new "meter-exempt" disability-parking placards will be distributed starting next year. They are expected to drastically reduce the number of able-bodied cheaters who use placards to park for free.

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Updated: August 18, 2013 4:10PM

The design — a yellow-and-gray-striped placard with a disability insignia — has been unveiled.

The applications — about 55,000 a week — are being sent out.

And based on the number turned in so far, state officials are hopeful a new disability-parking placard that’s being rolled out will do what Illinois lawmakers wanted:

Drastically reduce the number of people who qualify to park for free at meters — and, as a result, cut down on the number of able-bodied cheaters who use disability-parking placards or license plates to avoid paying to park.

The law that led to the new “meter-exempt permanent placard” was prompted by a 2011 Chicago Sun-Times investigation that found widespread abuse of free disability parking at meters in Chicago. The newspaper documented dozens of cases of able-bodied drivers using relatives’ placards, fake placards and stolen placards to avoid feeding parking payboxes.

The abuses have cost Chicago taxpayers millions of dollars in reimbursements to Chicago Parking Meters LLC, the private company given the right to run metered parking citywide under the meter-privatization deal championed by former Mayor Richard M. Daley.

The deal requires City Hall to reimburse the company for free parking provided to drivers displaying disability placards or plates. Those payments have soared to a total of nearly $55 million since the company began running the meter system in 2009 and started to sharply raise meter rates.

The Sun-Times reports prompted then-state Rep. Karen May (D-Highland Park) to sponsor legislation, passed last year, that drastically limits who qualifies for free parking. Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who initially didn’t back the proposal, ended up helping May muscle her bill through Springfield, in part because of the financial toll disabled-parking cheating was taking.

There are nearly 715,000 disability-parking placards in circulation statewide and another 83,000-plus cars with disability-parking license plates. Before, anybody who displayed a placard or had one of the license plates could park for free at any parking meter or metered zone in Illinois.

The new law allows free metered parking only for drivers who have their doctors attest that they cannot do one of the following:

Feed parking payboxes or meters “due to the lack of fine motor control of both hands.”

Feed payboxes or meters because they need to use a wheelchair.

Reach above their heads “to a height of 42 inches above the ground.”

“Walk more than 20 feet due to an orthopedic, neurological, cardiovascular or lung condition.”

The law takes effect in January. Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White issues placards for people with permanent disabilities on a four-year cycle, and 2014 starts the next cycle.

Since May 1, White’s staff has been mailing applications for the new, yellow-gray meter-exempt placards and the existing blue regular disability-parking placards to the hundreds of thousands of placard holders across the state.

The blue placards will still entitle people to park in disability spots in parking lots, but they won’t be able to park for free in metered zones.

So far, only 3,000 people with disabilities have sought the new meter-exempt placards, 365 of which have been approved. Many more — 25,000 — have applied for the blue non-meter-exempt placards, meaning only about 11 percent of placard applicants are seeking the free-parking benefit.

Bill Bogdan, White’s disability liaison, says he thinks the new law “will significantly reduce” meter cheating. “By reducing the number eligible for meter-exempt parking, you really reduce the fraud,” Bogdan says.

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