For disabled, accessibility now costs money

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Until now, Alexandrias reputation for being a disability-friendly city has rarely been compromised. But a line item in the new budget that charges disabled residents money to park in metered zones for the first time since the 1980s could alter the citys image while filling the governments pockets with change.

Anyone with a state-issued handicap placard or license plate can currently park in a metered zone without paying. Yet officials, advised by city staff and a parking study, decided to start charging disabled residents the same amount as everyone else $1.75 an hour beginning in September, after realizing what they said was widespread abuse of the system and a reservoir of untapped revenue sources. 

The city government estimates it lost $75,000 in revenue in the Carlyle neighborhood alone last year when the parking rate was even lower, according to a City Council memo. The figure for Old Town was $20,000.

My feeling is, there are ways to address that problem without having to act like a second-grade school teacher who punishes an entire class for something that just Johnny and Suzy did, said Chuck Benagh, a resident who uses a wheelchair. 

Benagh, who chairs the Alexandria Commission on Persons with Disabilities but spoke as a private resident, said the move steers Alexandria away from the direction it usually takes when dealing with accessibility for the disabled. He suggested cracking down on the abusers, not the legitimate users.

The Alexandria Police Department recently issued a statement informing residents of just that: A $300 hike in the fine for motorists pirating spaces reserved for the disabled and an amped-up campaign to thwart other abusers of the placard program. 

The release neglected to mention the new meter policy.

Accessibility advocates say the policy defeats the purpose of the placards. After a meters time limit is up, an elderly woman with a hip problem has a tough time getting back and forth to her car to feed it. A 20-something does not.

Stabbed in the heart, thats how I feel, said Abbey Moore, who uses a wheelchair, upon hearing the news. That negates the purpose of the placards. 

Not according to the city government. Its technically illegal to continually feed a meter past its initial limit, though the law is rarely enforced. From City Halls vantage point, if drivers disabled or not are not breaking the law in the first place, then nothing has changed. 

Were not taking any rights away from anyone, said Rich Baier, director of Transportation and Environmental Services. They can still park there for the same amount of time its just that now they have to pay.

You cant just say, I got a speeding ticket. Thats not fair. I always go this fast. Its not fair to break laws just because no police are around.

Alexandria is just the second jurisdiction in the state to opt for the charge. Arlington instituted the controversial policy in the 90s under the banner, All May Park, All Must Pay. 

Alexandrias study found that 53 of 55 vehicles parked in reserved spaces over a three-day period last year in the Carlyle neighborhood had removable placards rather than specialized handicap license plates, which could indicate abuse, according to a City Council memo.

Baier said the policy actually provides accommodation for people with a disability on the street because it will cut down on illegitimate cars parked in handicap spaces.

For others its emblematic of regression for a city that is continually ranked as one of the highest disability-friendly cities in the country by the National Organization on Disability. The city implemented a paratransit program in the 80s, six years before the American Disabilities Act required it.

I think it sets the wrong tone, Benagh said. I think Alexandria has more to offer toward being the most friendly jurisdictions for disabled people. I think it would serve the city to prove a point and reconsider the practice.

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