Portland City Council Thursday unanimously approved Commissioner Steve Novick's plan to require most owners of disabled parking placards to pay for metered spaces at downtown and Lloyd Center curbside parking spots.

Novick's plan could put an end to a downtown parking problem that has been raising the ire of shop owners for years. In some areas of downtown, especially along Southwest Fourth Avenue near Washington Street, nearly all the curbside parking during weekdays has been taken up 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. by cars displaying disabled permits. Owners of disabled permits have been allowed to park at metered spaces as long as they wish, and without having to pay.

But that will change in June, when the new parking rules will be applied. Portland transportation officials say as many as one in three curbside parking spaces in the downtown core may now be freed up for shoppers and others who come and go throughout the day.

Most cities facing similar problems have failed in attempts to curb abuse of disabled parking permits. A permit requires only that a physician sign a form, but does not set a standard for the degree of disability, and many physicians are reluctant to refuse to sign forms for long-time patients. Some people have been found using the permits of deceased relatives. Others have used permits after their intended period has passed. For instance, physicians will sign permits for pregnant women.

In July, the Tribune published a story showing how a handful of cities had found a new tactic to be successful — simply making drivers with disabled placards pay at meters like everyone else. In those cities, abuse dropped dramatically. Novick responded by directing the Portland Transportation Bureau to begin working on a solution.

Starting in June, drivers with disabled permits will have to pay at meters, but will have grace periods. For instance, an owner of a disabled placard can park for three hours after paying for a one-hour spot. The new rules include a number of provisions to cover special interests such as people who live downtown in subsidized housing and downtown residents who can show they don't have access to a parking garage for their cars. People in wheelchairs will also be exempt from the new rules, which are expected to increase revenue from the city's parking meters.

A transportation bureau study estimated that drivers with disabled permits parking free at metered spaces cost the city $2.4 million a year.

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