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On Aug. 26, Paul Latiff, Key Bridge Marriott reservations manager, fired off his second letter to the D.C. Department of Motor Vehicles about the tickets he had received after leaving his rental car in front of broken parking meters on 13th Street NW. In response to his initial complaint, the city had made what he thought was a ridiculous claim. “If you expect me to believe for one second,” he wrote, “that in response to my complaint, you dispatched a ‘meter technician’ (if such a thing exists) to conduct a 4-point investigation…#you take me and by design, the public that you were hired to serve, for complete fools.”
Latiff must have missed Courtney Riddick. On a recent morning, Riddick, who wears a uniform emblazoned with the D.C. Meter Operations logo, stands on the street where Latiff received his tickets, cracking open parking meters.
Not only does Riddick, one of six D.C. meter technicians, exist, he’s been extremely busy: From 2001 through this year, the number of broken meters in the city has been on the rise. According to D.C. Meter Operations Project Manager Mark Derrick, D.C. drivers are to blame. In 2001, his department fixed 2,559 intentionally jammed meters; this year, he estimates, they’ll crack 15,000. “They don’t want to pay,” he says of the meter-jammers. “[They’d rather take] the chance of being able to park all day on a jammed meter vs. paying off-street.”
Riddick, who’s been on the job for 10 months, fixes between 50 and 60 meters a day. This morning, his first job is a simple battery replacement. With its guts spilled out, the meter is hardly menacing: It runs on a 9-volt cell, like any number of household items, and without its signature dome, the mechanism is obviously fragile.
Once the battery is swapped out, Riddick deposits enough loose change to possibly outlast the first meter-maid visit of the day. “We’ll give the guy a little bit of time,” he says.
Replacing a battery is a whole lot easier than repairing jammed meters. Derrick says the jammers can be vicious—and creative. “We’ve seen razor blades, Super Glue, [and] during the summertime, gum,” he says. Last summer, a meter came into the shop that looked as if it had been eaten away by a corrosive. He thinks it was battery acid.
Meter Operations monitors high-incident areas and keeps track of suspected repeat offender’s tag numbers. Hot spots for intentional meter jams include the areas around the federal buildings, the central business district, and universities. Construction workers, who need to park all day at job sites, are major offenders. “[There’s] no rhyme or reason [to it],” says Field Operations Manager Jim Colliflower, who claims the vandals range from blue-collar workers to professionals.
Out in the field, Riddick has tools at his disposal to deal with meter jams, intentional and not. He solves paper clips and misguided coins with your standard popsicle stick. Meter Operations deals with damage to the mechanisms’ inner workings back at its Northeast shop. Each mechanism itself goes for about $135, more if the dome that houses it is also beyond repair. These days, on average, Riddick and his fellow meter technicians remove an average of 10 meters per day for service.
It wasn’t always this bad. Derrick thinks the turning point might have been passage of a 2000 District law that allowed the city’s ticket writers to, in effect, ignore handicapped permits from Maryland and Virginia that previously allowed drivers to park for free. “[The legislation] took away the commuter’s ability to circumvent the parking restrictions,” he says, “so that’s…#when we saw this activity [begin].”
By mid-fall of 2003, the amount of vandalism had begun to rise sharply. The trend continued until spring of this year, when law-abiding tourists flooded town. “They are using the meter spaces and don’t know the game,” Derrick says.
With Labor Day come and gone, and schools in session, the yearly exodus of travelers will open up more metered spaces to jam-happy locals. But help may be on the way: This fall, the District Department of Transportation, the Department of Public Works, and the Metropolitan Police Department will be launching a new campaign to increase turnover at metered spaces. Transportation Department spokesperson Bill Rice says tickets may be issued “even though there may still be time on the meters” if the vehicle is in violation of other parking restrictions.
The folks at Meter Operations are hopeful that the campaign will discourage another season of meter mayhem. But should the plan fail, Riddick will still be there. “There’s always ways of fixing them,” he says of the city’s bum meters.
Even when drivers would prefer him not to: “They’ll be, like, ‘Don’t fix that meter,’ and I say, ‘Well why not? It’s my job. Don’t you go to work every day, every morning?’ I got to do what I got to do.”CP