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November 22, 2007

"How To Fix the RR Station Parking Shortage"

With new rail cars coming in 2009, now’s the time to plan for additional riders by giving them a place to park at nearby stations. As all commuters know, station parking today is a nightmare.

Many stations have a four- or five -year wait for annual permits, which can cost up to $650; 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: a Dutch 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. And there wouldn’t necessarily be an increase in parking rates. It’s just that the people who most want and need parking would pay more than those who need it less. Isn’t that equitable?

The truth is, most towns oversell their available spaces. In Westport they issue 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 the 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 real 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.

More parking is planned in New Haven, the soon-to-be-built stations in West Orange and Fairfield and another deck will be added atop the existing lot in Bridgeport. But for the most southern part of the line between Norwalk and Greenwich, no new lots are in sight.

Everybody claims to want more parking… just not in their town where it will add to traffic. We all dream we’re living in the country but really want big-city amenities. Clearly, we can’t have it both ways.

CDOT spent five years and millions of dollars studying this issue, but the resulting “Rail Governance Study” recommendations have yet to be acted upon. I wonder why.

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