Downtown and Lloyd District business owners are about to get something for which they've lobbied for years: more on-street parking spaces for their shoppers.

The city isn't adding curbside parking, but a new set of parking regulations could free up as many as one in three spaces in heavily used streets downtown. That's the number of spaces that typically are filled all day by downtown residents and workers with disabled parking permits. The permits allow their owners to stay as long as they wish in metered spots, without paying.

On Thursday, city Commissioner Steve Novick released a draft of new rules to govern disabled parking permits, which, if adopted by the City Council, will require most drivers with disabled parking permits to pay for their parking.

One day last October, the Portland Bureau of Transportation counted more than 1,000 cars with disabled parking permits parked in metered spaces downtown and in the Lloyd District. Transportation experts say the problem of disabled permit abuse is a national one and that in some cities as much as 90 percent of the permits are being used by people who are not truly disabled. Obtaining a permit requires only that a driver get a physician to sign an authorization form. There is no standard for the severity of a disability and most physicians, experts say, are unwilling to say no to patients who make the request.

On-street parking, however, is intended for short-term use so that shoppers can visit stores and move on, leaving their parking spaces for new shoppers. A number of cities, including Oregon City, have experimented with requiring disabled permit holders to pay for their parking. In those cities, the use of disabled permits has dropped dramatically.

After the Tribune published a story in July detailing how other cities dealt with the problem of disabled parking permit abuse, Novick directed Portland's Transportation Bureau to begin work on solutions. That work yielded Thursday's staff recommendations which Novick expects to take before city council for approval before the end of the year. He met with the city's disabled parking task force on Wednesday and found “generally people were comfortable with this.” The task force in the past has resisted efforts to limit use of disabled permits.

Recovering a 'chunk'

But what the Bureau of Transportation giveth, the Bureau of Transportation taketh away. The new policy could free up hundreds of parking spots downtown and in the Lloyd District, but 30 downtown parking spots will be set aside and designated specifically for people who need wheelchairs to get around. And another 50 spaces will be set aside for people with disability placards, though those drivers will have to pay for their parking, the same as everybody else.

Not exactly like everybody else. The new rules stipulate that drivers with disabled permits will be able to park for as long as three hours after paying for a one-hour spot. The grace period is based on the assumption that drivers with disabled permits might need longer time to complete their business.

The new rules get complicated in an attempt to deal with various subsets of disabled placard holders. For instance, a special provision in the new recommendations will allow disabled downtown workers who can document that they cannot use public transportation or use parking garages to get preferential treatment that allows them to park near their work at a discounted meter rate.

In addition, residents with disability placards who live in downtown subsidized housing will get permits that allow them to park free at downtown meters as long as they want. Also, downtown residents who don't live in subsided housing but who can show there are no parking garages close to where they live will get permits that allow them to park on the street as long as they pay.

Novick says that the city doesn't know how many downtown workers and residents will be covered by the special circumstances. “I thought we'd at least give people the opportunity to say, 'I work downtown, here's why I can't use existing garages and can't use TriMet,' and see how many there are,” he says.

Novick also says the net gain of parking spaces should be considerable, even with 80 current curbside spaces being set aside for the disabled. Also, the new policy might entice some downtown workers to choose mass transit over driving.

“We have good reason to believe a large percentage of spaces downtown are occupied by commuters,” Novick says. “A significant number of those people are borrowing placards from relatives and a significant number realistically could use TriMet to come to their place of employment. But they want to use the placards because they can get it for free.”

He also notes that a Transportation Bureau study estimated that paid parking spaces being used for free by drivers with disabled permits costs the city $2.4 million a year. The new rules, according to Novick, won't allow the city to earn back that entire amount, but “we will at least recover a chunk of it,” he says.

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