By Jonathan Kaminsky
OLYMPIA, Wash (Reuters) - Washington state is weighing an end to free metered street parking for most disabled people after finding that the current system is too easily abused.
The effort, initiated by the Washington state legislature, is an attempt to balance the needs of some 750,000 people eligible for disabled parking privileges with concerns that the privileges are being widely misused.
A nine-member work group created by the legislature in June to address the issue put out a report last week recommending a new, more restrictive standard for unlimited free street parking, with eligibility hinging on factors such as an inability to put coins in a meter or walk more than 20 feet.
Those eligible under the new standard could apply for a separate "meter exempt" placard.
The report's authors, who included advocates for the disabled and officials with the state's health and licensing departments, found that free and unlimited street parking led to fraud and abuse of disabled parking privileges by people who were not disabled but who had found ways to buy or use the placards.
Holders of the current state-issued placard would still be able to park in handicapped spots under the recommended changes but would no longer get unlimited free street parking in metered, time-restricted spaces.
Under the proposal, local governments would have the ability to create their own, more lenient rules. Also, penalties would increase for fraudulent use of disabled parking passes, from citations to misdemeanor charges that carry the potential for jail time.
According to the report, at least 10 other states allow holders of handicap parking placards to park free in metered spaces, with varying degrees of restrictions.
Curt Decker, executive director of the National Disability Rights Network, said people with disabilities ought to be required to pay for parking just like everyone else, but expressed concern that a two-tiered placard system could be "a nightmare" to implement.
"The goal is to integrate those with disabilities into mainstream society but not let them get some sort of special treatment," he said.
If lawmakers take up the proposal, it could take two years to implement, the work group estimated.
(Editing by Sharon Bernstein and Ken Wills)