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Lawmaker: End free metered parking for most disabled people

Updated: December 18, 2011 5:18PM



Hundreds of thousands of disabled people who have been able to park for free at metered spots throughout Chicago and the rest of Illinois would feed meters like everybody else under a proposal being drafted by a state lawmaker.

State Rep. Karen May (D-Highland Park) announced her idea on Wednesday — the same day Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel introduced a city ordinance to crack down on the growing number of able-bodied people who are illegally using disabled-parking placards to avoid paying the city’s escalating meter fees, set to rise to $5.75 an hour in the Loop in 2012 and to $6.50 in 2013.

State law long has allowed disabled people to park free all day in metered spots — a benefit that dates back to when public transportation wasn’t handicapped-accessible and meters had to be fed with coin after coin.

But a Chicago Sun-Times investigation published this week found that — with one disabled-parking placard in circulation for every 13 passenger vehicles throughout Cook County — the system is widely abused in Chicago. The number of parking tickets and court cases involving placard abuse has increased dramatically, the newspaper found, with people using relatives’ placards, fake placards and even stolen placards to park for free.

May — who has announced she will leave the General Assembly when her term expires in January 2013 — said she’s begun the process of drafting legislation to end free parking for all but a select group of people with disabilities statewide. She wants free parking only for those who are truly unable to physically feed meter kiosks or who meet certain income guidelines.

Currently, people can get placards for free for a wide range of disabilities by having their doctors sign a two-page form.

“There’s a disconnect. Just because you’re handicapped doesn’t mean you should park for free. You should be able to park close,” said May, who expects to have a bill ready by early next year. “I think we will be creative in finding a provision that protects the disabled community and cracks down on the people who are abusing.

“It’s an affront to the disabled community that all these people are abusing it.”

Emanuel is proposing increased fines for meter cheaters and other able-bodied people who use placards in handicap-only spots in parking lots and garages.

His ordinance, which now heads to the City Council’s Committee on Pedestrian and Traffic Safety for consideration, would set fines of between $500 and $1,000 for motorists who display false, stolen or altered placards — a steep increase over the current $200 parking ticket.

Able-bodied drivers who use fraudulent placards — or use a legitimately disabled person’s placard without that person present — would face even stiffer penalties if caught in the act by a police officer. Their cars “would be subject to immediate impoundment and a penalty of $2,000” along with an additional $150 towing fee and $10 daily storage fee, according to a mayoral news release.

“The abuse of the disability placards has gone on for far too long,” Emanuel said in the release. “This ordinance sends a clear message that abuse of placards will not be tolerated in the city of Chicago.”

But the problem, May said, is that catching just one disabled-parking cheater in the act can take hours of waiting — and police departments statewide have more pressing matters to tend to.

“The fines are already hefty” in state law, May said. “I don’t see increasing the fines as a solution.”

Other cities and states have grappled with the free-parking issue. In Philadelphia, city leaders eliminated all-day free parking for disabled people in metered spots downtown and instead offered a one-hour free-parking grace period after metered time expires.

The Philadelphia ordinance, which also mandated a handicap-only space on every metered block, took effect in April 2000. In the first nine months after that, meter revenues went up 17 percent as handicap-marked vehicles disappeared off the streets.

A spokesman for Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White, who oversees the 600,000 disabled-parking placards and 82,000 disability license plates in circulation statewide, praised Emanuel’s proposal to crack down on placard abuse.

White spokesman Dave Druker was more cautious about May’s idea.

“We do have a little bit of concern here,” Druker said. “We want to make sure we’re going after the offenders and not the people who are truly needy.”

Working with a retired Chicago Police lieutenant, the Sun-Times in September and October documented 82 cases of seemingly able-bodied people using placards or disability license plates to park for free in metered spots or in handicap-only spots in parking lots.

In 30 of those instances, the gender or age — or both — of the person seen using the placard didn’t match the person to whom it was assigned, records showed. In two cases, the placards used by seemingly able-bodied drivers had been issued to people who had since died. And, in one case, a 39-year-old woman was spotted repeatedly parking for free using a placard that had been reported stolen by a 74-year-old diabetic man.



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