Parking is at a premium now more than ever in downtown Nashville. There are a lot of meters but, more often than not, many of them are not available.
And you might be surprised to see who the Channel 4 I-Team found using those spots around state office buildings day after day without paying.
The city's chief traffic engineer says what the Channel 4 I-Team uncovered appears to be evidence that the system is being abused by drivers using placards for drivers with disabilities.
"Our demand is more than our supply," said Chip Knauf, with Metro Traffic and Parking.
We went undercover and for days watched as some of the same drivers parked in metered spots on Polk Avenue, Capitol Boulevard and Rosa Parks Boulevard.
Sometimes they'd get their spot before the sun was up and stay until the work day was over. Never once did we see the drivers feed the meter, because they used disability placards. Under state law, disabled drivers can park at meters for free.
"These people appear to be able-bodied," Knauf said.
While we did see some drivers carrying a cane or others who had trouble walking, we watched as many drivers got out and maneuvered flights of stairs, carried bags and even walked for several minutes at a time in below freezing weather into Tennessee Tower or other surrounding buildings.
It's important to point out that many disabilities are not apparent to the naked eye. We don't know whether or not these drivers have a non-visible disability, like a respiratory issue, for example, because the state says for privacy reasons they can't disclose what a driver's documented disabilities are.
"Anybody who gets a handicapped placard through this office has to have a form completed. We operate on the honor system and, again, they operate under penalty of the law if they do it wrongly or unjustly," said Davidson County Clerk Brenda Wynn.
The county clerk's office, along with the Tennessee Department of Revenue, is in charge of issuing the placards. Both Wynn and Knauf say they have received complaints that drivers may be abusing the system.
To obtain a placard, you have to have a signed note from your doctor. But you only have to renew that placard every two years, and a doctor's note isn't required for renewals.
The Channel 4 I-Team asked Wynn if her office verifies a driver's disability with their physician.
"I think that might violate HIPPA laws, so we don't actually verify at all," she said.
Some are concerned because the placards are easily handed off. It's possible someone could even renew a placard that wasn't even theirs, such as from a deceased relative.
"If they renewed by mail," Wynn said.
The state says there are nearly 5,000 parking spaces downtown that are free of charge to state workers, including a parking garage at Tennessee Tower. Still, our cameras found many of the metered spaces on the streets near state buildings occupied by cars with disability placards.
The state garage and other lots, along with surrounding streets, include disability-accessible parking as well.
In those employee parking areas, there are 139 disability-accessible spots. The state says that's more than double what is required by federal law.
Knauf said his department is troubled by how many drivers with disabled placards spend all day parked at downtown meters.
"The numbers seem to be heavily favored towards people parking that are able to walk. Whether they're disabled, I don't know, but they're certainly able to walk to their destination," he said.
The city's traffic engineer says if there are abuses in the system, they lose parking revenue, the city loses business at restaurants and stores and, above all, someone who really needs the spot might not be able to find one.
"So there's some revenue concerns, but mostly it's the lack of turnover parking. The short-term user who wants to come in there and go shopping or have lunch can no longer do that without going to a surface lot where they have to pay four times the amount they would normally have to pay," Knauf said. "The number one concern over and above revenue and even over and above turnover parking, it's the person that really needs that spot who is not able to park there."
That includes people like State Rep. Darren Jernigan, D-Old Hickory, who is an advocate for people with disabilities.
"What first comes to mind is disappointment," he said. "I didn't see one person in a wheelchair or one person with a walker. You've captured here on video, there's clear abuses in the system."
"I think at the legislative level it needs to be looked at," Knauf said.
And that's exactly what's going to happen. After the Channel 4 I-Team brought these undercover findings to Jernigan's attention, he said he will be sponsoring legislation this year that he hopes will help prevent abuses in the system.
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