Will disabled placard abuse undermine Sacramento city parking plan?

Illegal use of disabled placards, considered widespread in downtown Sacramento, could hamper the city’s efforts to modernize its downtown parking programs, several city officials said this week.

That concern was among several surfacing this week around the city’s planned downtown parking changes. With the downtown arena opening set for October, the Sacramento City Council on Tuesday gave its parking staff the go-ahead to begin a seven-month process of extending most downtown parking meter hours to 10 p.m. Currently, most meters operate until 6 p.m.

The change will prompt more drivers to use city garages, officials said, potentially freeing up some meters for shorter-term parking and reducing the amount of block circling that drivers do. The plan has prompted debate and concerns on several fronts.

The system will not work if people can use those placards and park anywhere at a meter all day and all night.

Sacramento City Councilman Larry Carr

Council member Eric Guerra said later meter hours will be a burden on people who want to participate in local government, such as attending City Council meetings that begin at 6 p.m. In response, city parking staff said they will look into a parking validation program.

A restaurant coalition representative said business owners are concerned about impacts on patrons.

“We have to make needed changes in a way that doesn’t price out the ability for a family to go downtown, grab a bite to eat and attend a Kings game,” Josh Wood said.

The council told staff to refrain from imposing later meter hours in midtown and on the R Street Corridor until city staff and restaurant representatives can consult.

One of the unknowns is what effect the state’s disabled placard parking laws will have on the city’s plans to use meters for revenue enhancement at night and to achieve a high turnover rate at those meters.

Under state law, vehicles with blue placards can park for free at meters, with no time limit. Officials in several large cities contend their downtowns are burdened by placard misuse by people who are not disabled. Drivers can obtain placards from the DMV by presenting a form with a signature from their doctor or a few others in the health care field.

“Unlimited use of the placards is going to blow this out of the water,” Councilman Larry Carr predicted Tuesday. “The system will not work if people can use those placards and park anywhere at a meter all day and all night.”

A city survey several years ago on several blocks of N Street near the Capitol found 73 percent of parking spots occupied by cars with blue placards. Many were parked most of the day, suggesting they belonged to downtown workers. A later Bee survey found 45 percent of vehicles parked on L and N streets surrounding the Capitol had placards.

“People are stealing parking from our mobility needful folks,” City Public Works Chief Jerry Way said. The city employs two placard abuse traffic officers, but officials say it is hard under current law to catch and cite people. The city has issued an average of about nine such citations a month over the past year.

A bill recently introduced in the state Assembly could, if passed, alleviate Sacramento’s concerns.

The bill, AB 2602, by Assemblyman Mike Gatto of Los Angeles and Burbank, would allow cities to require that people with disabled placards pay for meters and not stay longer than the meter’s posted limit as long as the city “makes all reasonable accommodations, including the provision of free parking for individuals who, by virtue of their disability, are unable to insert payment into a parking meter.”

The bill also will require users to apply for renewal when their placards expire. Currently, the renewal is automatic.

Officials at Disability Rights California, an advocacy group, say they have not yet reviewed the Gatto bill. However, disability community advocates have in the past questioned how rampant placard abuse is, and have encouraged cities to put more effort into cracking down on placard abusers rather than changing the law.

At Councilman Steve Hansen’s request, the council extended parking enforcement to 10 p.m. in all central city residential neighborhoods to reduce the likelihood that people will park in front of residences to avoid paying at meters.

Typically, nonresidents are allowed to park for two hours or less in residential areas where parking restrictions apply. City officials say they are working on an online system that will allow residents to more easily obtain temporary visitor parking permits for their guests.

Parking division chief Matt Eierman said his group will begin changing some meters’ hours to 10 p.m. in the next few weeks.

A significant element of the program is implementation of a meter tool called SpotZone, which will allow drivers to pay, either at the meter or remotely via smartphone, for extra hours beyond the meter’s regular hour limit. That will allow drivers to stay at two-hour meters for three or more hours at higher prices for extra hours. Those drivers likely instead will choose to park in a city garage, where rates are lower, Eierman said.

Tony Bizjak: 916-321-1059, @TonyBizjak

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