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Kate Whittle

Since Missoula’s new digital parking meter system went into effect Dec. 9, there’s been some confusion for residents getting up to speed. Remembering a license plate number. Using a credit card. Paying more, but being able to add time from a cellphone. Drivers with disabilities, however, were surprised by another new wrinkle: being charged for parking for the first time.

Hadley Ferguson, a local artist diagnosed with Parkinson's, requires a cane to walk and has a handicapped placard on her car. When the new parking meters were installed, she assumed parking would still be free for two hours for handicapped patrons. She was surprised to get her first ticket in early January.

“I don’t mind paying for parking,” Ferguson says. “I don’t think I should have any special treatment just because I have a handicap placard, but when there was a meter right in front of the car, it was easy to pay and then be where you needed to be.”

The new LUKE system also requires patrons to walk to the digital meter in the middle of the block, instead of paying into the individual slot meters at each space, posing an extra hassle for people with limited mobility, Ferguson says.

At Summit Independent Living Center, advocacy coordinator Travis Hoffman had thought the new digital system might be an improvement over the slot meters, which are difficult to use if people have limited dexterity.

“With the new ones they put in, I think the thought maybe was they’re more accessible now that they also take credit cards," Hoffman says. "But we’re still seeing the same issue of people not being able to grasp coins or slide their card in the slot."

Hoffman and Ferguson were hopeful that the city could find other options, like adding an Apple Pay or Google Pay function so people could pay remotely via a smartphone app, or making parking free again for anyone with a handicapped tag.

Interim Parking Services Director Geoff Badenoch says he's heard from people like Hoffman and Ferguson, and is currently writing a new policy for handicapped parking.

“Like rolling out anything that’s new, you can’t anticipate all the problems, so we’re playing catch up on this one,” Badenoch says. He adds that he’s personally worked with people with disabilities before, and understands that accessible transportation is vital.

“I read a statistic somewhere that said in the course of their lifetime, 85 perfect of the American public will be covered in some way by [Americans with Disabilities Act] provisions,” he says. “Like, I’m 62 and I ride a bike every day, but maybe I’ll be 82 and can’t ride a bike every day, and the protections of the ADA are there to keep me able to still participate in society and have it function.”

Badenoch plans to have the handicapped parking proposal ready for the Parking Commission Board’s Feb. 4 meeting.