Raleigh, N.C. — Handicapped drivers could soon have to start paying to park on downtown Raleigh streets.
The City Council is considering a change to a long-standing policy allowing vehicles with handicapped placards to park in metered and time-limited parking spaces at no charge all day long.
The policy has been a sore spot for downtown merchants, who say vehicles bearing the placards prevent other customers from parking near their establishments.
Many contend that people with disabilities aren't the ones flouting the system. Instead, they say, relatives and people who obtained a handicapped placard while recovering from surgery or another temporary situation use the tags for free, convenient, unlimited parking.
WRAL Investigates spotted the same Jeep with a handicapped tag parked for an extended period on a downtown street in 2006, 2008 and 2009. Two years ago, one woman admitted to using her father's placard, and another woman, who had recovered enough from a car accident to walk in high heels, said she planned to use her handicapped tag as needed until it expired.
"These cars will park here all day," Don Carter, a downtown building owner, said Friday about three cars with handicapped placards parked in 15-minute spaces on Davie Street. "Everyone loses except the one that's abusing the system."
City task forces in 2006 and 2008 discussed cracking down on the misuse of handicapped placards, but a parking and transportation master plan adopted last year didn't address the issue.
Members of the most recent parking task force and Downtown Raleigh Alliance representatives recently drew up recommendations for managing handicapped parking downtown. The proposals have been sent to a City Council committee for review.
"I'm hopeful the council will do something about it," Mayor Charles Meeker said, noting he's seen placard abuse firsthand.
The suggestions include charging drivers with handicapped placards for on-street parking, providing incentives for handicapped drivers to use city-owned parking garages, training volunteers and parking enforcement staff to spot misuse of handicapped placards and working with area lawmakers to update state laws on curbside parking in municipal areas.
City officials have said in the past that state law allows the free, all-day parking for placard holders, but supporters of new rules note that Charlotte charges handicapped drivers to park downtown.
Supporters also said that Raleigh's new program of using parking pay stations downtown will be undermined unless the handicapped parking issue is resolved.
Mark Ezzell, an advocate for the disabled, said he hopes the effort prompts citywide enforcement of handicapped placard rules.
"This is an issue we can come to some sort of agreement on," Ezzell said, "recognizing that some people aren't going to be able to come out every so often and feed a meter. But that's not to say those people shouldn't have to pay the same amount as anyone else."