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New rules require disabled drivers to pay for handicap spots

Disabled drivers will have to begin paying for parking in parts of Baltimore beginning Thursday, under Project Space, an initiative aimed at combating theft of handicap placards.

The Parking Authority retrofitted multi-space meter kiosks in the city's central business district and added 200 accessible meters to meet provisions in the Americans With Disabilities Act. The initiative will eventually be expanded to include Fells Point, Harbor East, Federal Hill, Mount Vernon and elsewhere.

The rates for individuals who use a disability placard or tag will be the same as for those without one, which is intended to remove the incentive for people to steal the emblems. Parking with the placards and tags has been free.

The project has been done in conjunction with the Mayor's Commission on Disabilities.

"It's no secret that in Baltimore City like many other metropolitan areas, we have our parking challenges," Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said. "Making matters worse is the abuse of disability placards, which unfairly limit options for individuals living with or without disabilities.

"Baltimore should be accessible for everyone."

All meters in the area covered by the initiative will allow parking for at least four hours. The change also means that the number of spots available for able-bodied drivers will shrink, as handicap meters are added. Citywide, 10 percent of meters, or about 1,100 meters, will be converted.

The 10 percent figure represents the portion of Baltimore adults who are eligible for disability placards or license plates. The new meters are blue and stand about 3 feet tall.

Officials expect, though, that the new rules will open up more parking spots by creating more turnover. Thieves not only steal the placards to get free parking but to park for unlimited amounts of time.

Peter Little, director of the Parking Authority, said the agency's studies have shown that vehicles with disability placards often take up 100 percent of on-street spaces in certain city blocks and remain parked there all day.

"Project Space has been a long time coming," Little said. "The group who has suffered the most from this problem is people with disabilities, who need better access to parking spaces in order to reach their destinations."

The old rules left disabled drivers at risk, as the placards were the No. 1 item stolen from vehicles. About 2,000 are stolen annually, with some fetching as much as $300 on the black market.

Dwight Daughton, who lives in Baltimore's New Northwood neighborhood, said he was a victim.

A thief smashed his window and "destroyed everything" in the car. Plus, Daughton said he had to pay his insurance company a $250 deductible.

On Wednesday, Toni Yager, of Baltimore's Brooklyn neighborhood, was the first to use one of the new meters on Key Highway behind the Inner Harbor. She drove her blue Hyundai Elantra up to the spot, and with the help of a wood-carved cane, walked to the meter to pay.

"It's wonderful," said Yager, who works for the League for People with Disabilities. "I would never come down here, because I was afraid I would never have any place to park."

The city originally developed the policy to allow disabled drivers to park for free in the early 1990s before technology made meters accessible to all. The old crank-turn meters were hard or impossible for some to use.

The new meters accept cash or credit cards without requiring users to turn a crank.

The central business district is bounded by Franklin Street on the north, President Street on the east, Key Highway on the south, and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard on the west.

Other cities, including Arlington, Va., and Asheville, N.C., have similar enacted similar policies.

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