Tuesday, April 24, 2018
Opinion

Parking for disabled more available than many realize

ST. PETERSBURG

Progress in a city's core depends on residents and tourists being drawn to it. But progress comes with a price, and more and more, the price downtown is parking.

It's no longer unusual to circle several blocks before finding an available space. Because of the demand, free parking has all but evaporated on most downtown streets in the Sunshine City.

As Beach Drive and parts of Central Avenue continue to draw patrons to museums, restaurants and bars, there's concern there are not enough handicap accessible parking spaces along the city's busiest corridors.

A number of readers have called the Times to express concerns that the city may not be in compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act's requirements for on-street accessible parking.

State law requires there must be one accessible parking space per 150 metered on-street spaces.

What hasn't been made clear to a lot of curious callers is that state law has an exemption for "persons who have disabilities from payment of parking fees and penalties."

And because of it, handicap license plate and placard owners can park wherever there are meters on city streets — free of charge — without worry of citations.

To be clear, not all cities adhere to the state law, but this one does.

"The intent of the state statute is that there may not be enough handicap accessible spaces and some motorists may not have the dexterity to put coins in meters," said Evan Mory, the city's transportation manager.

There's a similar rule that applies to tolls, too. But residents must apply through the state for a permit.

Many residents and visitors are not aware of the state statute.

There are 6,500 parking spaces downtown, and about 1,500 of them are metered. According to city officials, the meters are expected to generate over $1 million this year, plus another $1.5 million from parking citations.

According to Mory, the city exceeds ADA requirements on Beach Drive as well as most streets between Fifth Avenues N and S and from the bay to 22nd Street.

Despite meeting those requirements, residents and tourists alike are always inquiring about provisions the city offers to people with disabilities.

"I get all kinds of calls from visitors, especially concerning the numerous co-sponsored city events downtown," said Theresa Jones, community affairs manager and ADA coordinator for the city.

Since the city co-sponsors a host of events in Vinoy Park and Straub Park, officials make sure the event planners factor in the demand for accessible parking.

"We designate 30 spaces at North Shore Pool, as well as additional spaces in nearby city garages that also provide trolley support to the event," Jones said.

Look closely enough and you'll see the city has stepped up in other ways.

In recent years, the city modified some of the accessible spaces on Beach Drive so the access aisles and ramps are on the right side of the parking spaces rather than the left. That's designed to be more user-friendly for those with vans containing side-deploying wheelchair lifts — which are typically on the passenger side, Mory said.

Also, when co-sponsored events are held in North or South Straub Park, temporary disabled spaces are set up on the east side of Beach Drive to accommodate the extra demand.

"We realize we have a very popular downtown," Jones said. "It's vibrant. It's no longer considered heaven's waiting room. And we recognize that there's a demand for parking."

The demand isn't limited to large festivals and city-sponsored events.

"We've even had complaints about Saturday Morning Market," Jones said. "There's additional parking in the South Core parking garage, but because of the market's popularity, the city cannot provide enough spaces for everyone."

Jones coordinates with volunteers from the Committee to Advocate for Persons with Impairments. That group is appointed by the mayor and its primary function is to advise the City Council.

"CAPI has been around since 1972," Jones said. "ADA wasn't passed until 1990, so the city has been intentional in its quest to help residents with disabilities for quite some time."

Despite the city's efforts, there are some who will abuse the system, by illegally parking in accessible spaces.

But when caught, there's a steep penalty — a $250 fine.

CAPI gets its funding from the scoundrels who illegally park in those spaces, receiving half of the fine.

The money is then used to pay for closed caption capability at City Council meetings and "to increase and enhance accessibility in other ways throughout the city," said Jones.

And that's a good thing.

Contact Sandra J. Gadsden at [email protected] or at (727) 893-8874.

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