D.C. Unrolls Citywide Visitor Passes Amid Criticism

Photo by Bill Petros/Current File Photo
The District's plans for visitor parking passes have drawn criticism from parking-scarce neighborhoods such as Georgetown.
The District's plans for visitor parking passes have drawn criticism from parking-scarce neighborhoods such as Georgetown.

By Brady Holt
Current Staff Writer

All residents of blocks with Residential Permit Parking can soon request a free visitor parking placard that will be good for a year starting Oct. 1, the D.C. Department of Transportation announced last week.

The program refines a system that was already in use in wards 1, 3, 4, 5 and 6, in which the one-year passes were mailed automatically to every eligible household. Now, residents must specifically order the passes, which waive two-hour parking restrictions within the boundaries of a particular advisory neighborhood commission.

The Transportation Department had said last summer that it intended to roll out a version of the program citywide this fall, when the already-issued passes are set to expire. But officials also indicated they wanted to make changes to protect against overuse or abuse, particularly before introducing the passes to the parking-starved neighborhoods of Ward 2. A popular proposal was a “coupon book” allowing for a set number of free uses while charging for additional days of guest parking.

Last week’s announcement that the program would change little as it grew citywide has attracted some criticism. Opponents argued that making it easier for visitors to park for free will only make it harder for everyone else to find a spot in crowded blocks.

“We’re disappointed to see DDOT take a step in the wrong direction after it seemed to signal it was going to be looking at comprehensively re-evaluating the [Residential Parking Permit] program,” said Cheryl Cort, policy director for the Coalition for Smarter Growth. “Just mailing out a lot of free parking passes to most households in the city is not a good approach.”

Ward 3 Council member Mary Cheh, who chairs the committee overseeing the Transportation Department, said requiring residents to explicitly request a visitor pass is an improvement. But she agreed that further reform of D.C. parking programs would be valuable.

“I love the visitor parking program,” Cheh said. “It’s important and well-used by people who need it for regular visitors. ... I just want to see a more comprehensive, thoughtful approach.”

A common fear has been abuse of the passes, particularly in parts of Ward 2, where several advisory neighborhood commissions voted against receiving visitor parking passes, in part due to concerns that they would be sold to commuters. The Georgetown commission had been working with the Transportation Department on a customized solution.

“DDOT’s announcement was a surprise to everyone,” said Ron Lewis, chair of the Georgetown commission. “We’ve been working with DDOT all along on parking issues, including sponsoring two well-attended public meetings. We learned that there are a lot of possibilities for improving visitor parking. Some of these are more flexible than the proposal of one placard per household.”

Ward 2 Council member Jack Evans echoed that surprise, noting the opposition from his constituents. “It’s been made clear to DDOT that the leadership in Ward 2 doesn’t want these,” Evans said of the passes. “I thought this was a settled issue.”

Transportation Department spokesperson Reggie Sanders said the latest reforms will help prevent misuse of the passes, such as sale or duplication, while retaining the convenience and simplicity of the earlier system.

For instance, requiring residents to request a pass will reduce the number of passes in circulation and link each one to a particular person rather than an address. Furthermore, the new passes will have a scannable code associated with an individual and address, easing enforcement efforts, according to Sanders. The scan will also show whether the pass is being used in the wrong neighborhood — a common issue, he said.

Requested replacements of a lost or stolen pass will also be tracked more easily, Sanders said, and duplications or other misuses could mean a $300 fine. Owners of cars regularly spotted overnight, even with a visitor pass, will also be asked to register locally or demonstrate that they live elsewhere.

“Once the enforcement piece of it is established, they will see that people will be very careful about how they use these passes,” he said. He also urged residents to file a 311 report of a car they suspect of improper use of a pass.

“We hope that the residents will be our eyes and ears; we hope that the residents who apply for these visitor passes will use the honor code to do the right thing,” said Sanders.

Dupont Circle neighborhood commissioner Noah Smith said that although his commission had opposed the visitor passes previously, the new changes to the system are significant. In requiring orders, “they’re adding in a barrier to entry … and hopefully that will reduce the amount of visitor parking permits that are actually out there,” he said.

Sanders of the Transportation Department said that simply expanding the existing visitor parking program could have increased parking pressures. But he said the revisions have addressed the issue, and he doesn’t believe that making passes more available will increase parking demand from legitimate guests.

Responding to the coupon-book proposal, he said such a system would be more expensive to manage, for little gain. “Our feeling is and our feedback has been that paying for the pass is not necessarily a deterrent,” Sanders said.

Cort disagreed. “Pricing is a very efficient tool for allocating something that is in demand,” she said.

Cheh predicted that the city will move in that direction eventually. “I think even though [the visitor passes are] going to be free this coming year, [the Transportation Department] ought to signal somehow that it’s not always going to be free.”

Sanders said the agency will continue to modify its programs.

“This is not an end point,” he said. “We will continue to hear feedback from residents ... and we will continue to design this to help get us to a system where there aren’t any abuses.”

The Transportation Department is accepting comments on the visitor parking pass modifications at publicspace.policy@dc.gov.

This article appears in the Aug. 14 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.