Alexandria city officials reversed themselves and decided not to charge handicapped drivers to park at metered spaces, but officials said they would step up enforcement to reduce abuse of handicapped-parking permits.

Leaders of the disabled community praised the decision, but at least one member of the parking study group that recommended the pay-to-park policy last summer says abuse of the free parking may rise as a result of the city's decision.

City staff had recommended that the council adopt an "all may park, all must pay" policy modeled after an Arlington County program last November as way to deter abuse of handicapped permits in metered zones in Old Town and Carlyle.

An Old Town parking study group commissioned by the city voted in favor of the policy, which would have required handicapped drivers to pay at parking meters.

But the City Council voted to defer a vote on the proposal until the Alexandria Commission on Persons with Disabilities could conduct its own study. Now, based on that commission's recommendations, the city staff's latest proposal would continue to allow up to four hours of free parking for drivers displaying handicapped permits.

The city may establish a special permit program to give certain disabled workers in the city 12 hours of free parking at meters. The proposal goes before the City Council on Tuesday.

Chuck Benagh, chairman of the disabilities commission, said the city made the right decision and keeps the city accessible to disabled drivers.

But Bert Ely, a member of the Old Town Civic Association who worked on the parking study group, said handicapped parking abuse could become an even bigger problem in the city now that the pay-to-park proposal has been abandoned.

"It's a further liberalization of parking, which I think is unfortunate because of the abuse problems," he said. And if the city does create a 12-hour permit, "the incentive for abuse becomes even greater."