BOSTON (CBS) – Anyone who lives or works in downtown Boston knows that parking isn’t cheap.
However, the WBZ I-Team repeatedly observed how some drivers are cheating the system to avoid the cost: Using someone else’s handicap placard to park for free at meters all day.
Despite new legislation intended to crack down on abuse, the I-Team found enforcement can be elusive, especially since it often requires catching a driver in the act.
Government watchdogs and disability advocates say it raises the question: Is it time to change the state law that exempts drivers with handicap placards from paying for parking at meters?
Day after day, the I-Team watched a construction worker finish his shift in the Seaport District. He then returned to his Toyota sedan with the handicap placard belonging to a 64-year-old woman hanging in the rear-view mirror.
Even on days when he hitched a ride with a friend, the worker brought the placard to score them the free spot.
When the I-Team approached the worker to question him about the abuse, he initially denied the Toyota was his car. After learning he’d been repeatedly captured on video, the man walked away and hid around a corner until the I-Team left the area.
During its undercover investigation, the I-Team documented several other instances of fraud in the Seaport District:
After gathering video evidence, the I-Team questioned all of them about the abuse. The construction worker drove away quickly without answering any questions.
The other two violators denied they owned the vehicles and walked out of sight. They eventually returned to pick up their vehicles under cover of darkness.
The I-Team discussed the findings with Sen. Eileen Donoghue, a Lowell state lawmaker who championed a new law that increases fines and penalties for placard abuse, which take effect this summer.
“What you described is absolutely a violation,” Donoghue said. “If they got hit with a $1,000 fine, that would get their attention. The new law is really to discourage and disincentive people from using these inappropriately.”
The topic first caught the I-Team’s attention because of so many downtown Boston vehicles parked with placards visible through the windshield.
During the ensuing surveillance, it did not appear drivers misusing the disability benefit were worried about getting caught. One construction worker used a placard that expired last October.
The I-Team learned Boston Transportation Department parking officers patrolling the streets do not have the authority to enforce suspected placard abuse.
Only law enforcement officers have access to the system that provides placard owner information, according to a Registry of Motor Vehicles (RMV) spokeswoman.
“Those enforcing local parking rules without access to the system are encouraged to report instances of abuse to the RMV,” the spokeswoman said.
Last year, the RMV received almost 300 reports of suspected abuse from parking officers and the general public.
Some police departments like Waltham and Fall River have self-funded programs to target misuse of placards, but enforcement might be spotty in other municipalities. Statewide, law enforcement officers issued 354 violations for placard abuse in 2017.
In 2016, the Inspector General said rampant abuse in downtown Boston is costing the city millions of dollars per year in lost parking meter revenue.
The I-Team asked Sen. Donoghue what should happen with the meter exemption for people with handicap placards. The state lawmaker said the issue deserves further review, but expressed concern that not all communities have meters as accessible as Boston (i.e. ability to pay by mobile phone, etc.).
“It’s a valid point, but I do think that we want to make sure we aren’t hindering those who most need it,” Donoghue said. “The devil is always in the details.”
Donoghue’s bill also gives more power to the RMV to vet applications before issuing disability placards to drivers. During its investigation, the I-Team watched at least six construction workers finish their shifts, walk several blocks, and get into vehicles with placards registered to them, raising questions about how easy it is to secure the parking benefit.
Some states use a two-tier system at parking meters. That scenario allows people whose disability prevents them from reaching a meter or kiosk to obtain a waiver and continue parking for free.
However, all other placard holders have to pay. The Inspector General recommended that change in his 2016 report.
Christine Griffin, the executive director of the Disability Law Center, acknowledged that the move could be unpopular at first. However, Griffin said she is tired of seeing the blatant abuse and drivers clogging up metered parking spaces all day.
“I support that change because it actually treats people with disabilities equally with everyone else. And a lot of the time, that’s exactly what we’re arguing for,” she said.
Ryan Kath can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter or connect on Facebook.