D.C.'s controversial handicapped parking meter program, stopped by emergency legislation last month, came out of years of trying to clamp down on fraud, according to city officials.

District Department of Transportation Director Terry Bellamy told the D.C. Council that the city has been trying to refine rules for handicapped parking for more than a decade to keep the city's parking spots accessible for disabled people.

At issue has been the abuse of handicapped parking placards, which gave drivers a free pass to park anywhere. It has been a long-term problem that has tied up many of the city's some 17,000 spaces in an already parking-tight city, officials said.

Proliferation of handicap placards
District officials canvassed three busy areas in January for handicapped placards or tags:
• 31 of 34 parked vehicles had placards on the 300 block L'Enfant Plaza SW
• 7 of 8 spaces had placards on the south side of the 1800 block of F Street NW
• 7 of 10 vehicles had placards on the west side of the 900 block of 15th Street NW

"The lure of free parking has proven to be an enticement that many people who are not disabled cannot resist, and it has led to the excessive misuse of disability placards and plates," Bellamy wrote in his testimony for a D.C. Council hearing.

It's hard to prove the fraud, DDOT spokesman John Lisle said. But city officials have canvassed streets where most spots are taken by vehicles with handicapped plates or placards, such as 31 out of 34 cars parked on L'Enfant Plaza one January day.

"We think it's highly unlikely that all of those drivers are disabled," Lisle said.

In 2010, such abuse made the news when a woman made a fuss after her Lexus was briefly lost when it was "courtesy towed" from a handicapped spot as she attended a gala featuring President Obama. It turned out she was using her husband's disability tag illegally.

But each time the city pulls the loopholes closed, some say the constraints become too tight.

In 2001, the city enacted new limits to curb fraud: drivers needed D.C.-issued placards to receive handicap-driver privileges.

But a lawsuit challenged it in 2004, so the city created two dedicated handicapped meters per block.

This winter the city rolled out new red-top meters, stemming from a 2006 act. All drivers would have to pay, but those with placards could park for twice the length of time.

Disabled drivers complained about the lack of notice and cost, while others lamented that it reserved nearly one of every 10 on-street parking spaces. Ward 3 Councilwoman Mary Cheh called DDOT's handling of the meters "disastrous."

After two weeks of operations, the D.C. Council delayed the program until June 18.

"We acknowledge there is always room for more outreach, especially when you are implementing a significant change in policy, and in this case our outreach may have been too narrowly focused," Bellamy acknowledged.