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May 07, 2006

"Solving the RR Station Parking Mess"

Before we can get cars off the roads by persuading drivers to become passengers on the trains, we first have to give them a place to park their cars at the train stations. As all commuters know, station parking is a nightmare.

Many stations have a four or five year wait for annual permits, which can cost up to $600, and day-parking is expensive, if you can find it.

As I’ve explained before, parking at most rail stations is owned by the Connecticut Dept. of Transportation, but administered by the local towns. That’s why we’ve ended up with a crazy quilt of rules and pricing.

Take Rowayton for example. Every year annual permits are handed out on a first-come, first served basis one hectic Saturday morning in May. Nobody is “grandfathered-in”. Everyone literally waits in line, often all night, every year. This may seem fair, especially to newcomers, but it’s hardly an efficient way to manage a scarce resource.

I have a better idea: an auction. Spaces would start selling online on a certain date and time with the first permit going to the highest bidder in a 24 hour period. The second permit would go to the next highest bidder, etc. There’d be no preference to those who already have permits nor by town of residency. The scarce supply of spaces would moderate the demand by price.

As it is, most towns oversell their available spaces. In Westport they sell twice as many permits as there are spaces. Why? Because the permits are too cheap and there’s never a time when everybody who has one tries to park on the same day.

People hoard their annual permits, renewing them even if they don’t use them regularly.
True confession: I have an annual parking permit in Darien that costs me $288. Having waited four years to get it, I’m not likely to give it up, even though I use it only one or two days a week.

Is that fair to the daily commuter who needs that space but hasn’t risen to the top of the waiting list because guys like me won’t let go? Probably not. But unless my town raises parking permit prices and squeezes my greed out of the equation, I’ll keep hanging onto my permit. An auction would change that. My space would go to the highest bidder, not the weasel like me who thinks he “paid his dues” by waiting on some list for a few years and deserves tenure.

I’m all for keeping parking “affordable”. The problem is, it’s too affordable. We should let the marketplace define the price of affordability, and that’s what an auction would do most efficiently.

Of course, the other solution is to add more parking spaces. When CDOT tried adding a few spaces in Rowayton a few years back, they were pilloried. When they came to Darien and proposed more parking at Noroton Heights, they were booed out of town.

I guess the NIMBYs won because they’ve never had to wait in line all night for a parking permit.
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JIM CAMERON has been a Darien resident for 14 years. He is Vice Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM. You can reach him at jim@camcomm.com or www.trainweb.org/ct

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