What's the ticket to cracking Westport's RR parking crunch?
Before she left her Wilton home Monday morning, Maureen Healy allowed an additional 15 minutes for the drive to the Saugatuck Metro-North train station. She budgeted the extra time not for traffic, but to find a parking space once she arrived at the station to catch a train to New Haven.
Despite that time cushion, Healy ended up circling the commuter parking lots until she found a $13 spot in a commercial lot on Railroad Place.
"It's a mess," said Healy, who formerly held a railroad parking permit when she commuted from Westport to Grand Central Terminal for a job in New York City. "It's gotten worse. They need far more daily parking spaces."
Healy's travails highlight one of the most pressing and complex infrastructure challenges facing Westport officials: meeting a large and growing demand for commuter parking at the town's two Metro-North stations. The Saugatuck station stands out as one of the most heavily used rail depots in the region, according to a survey of railroad parking in lower Fairfield County municipalities released last month by the South Western Regional Planning Agency. Of approximately 1,240 parking spaces, about 1,180 spots at the station were occupied when a parking utilization count was conducted by SWRPA in November 2010.
"These are very desirable spaces," said Deputy Police Chief Foti Koskinas, director of railroad operations for the town. "I'm sure if we wanted to sell 5,000 of them, if we could, we would. There just isn't enough space for all the people who want to use our parking lots."
Westport's two Metro-North train stations have a total of approximately 1,700 parking spaces, spread among 11 lots. More than 75 percent of the parking capacity at the two stations -- or about 1,300 spaces -- is reserved for permit-holders. The two stations allocate approximately 320 slots for daily parkers, which accounts for 18 percent of all railroad parking spaces. Another 35 parking positions are set aside for businesses that operate at the stations such as Avis Rent A Car, Lili's Catering and Westport Taxi.
The town has allocated approximately $1.7 million this year to its Railroad Parking Fund, with the Police Department's Railroad Parking Division overseeing maintenance and security and management of permits for the Metro-North parking lots. The town and state Department of Transportation split ownership of the commuter lots, while the DOT owns the train station.
Between 2008 and 2010, the total number of applicants on the waiting list for parking permits grew 35 percent from 1,850 to 2,500. During that period, the estimated time spent by applicants on the waiting list increased from four years to five years.
Demand for commuter spaces has also increased over the last 18 months, as the economy has slowly recovered, said Officer Mark Pocius, the patrol officer in the Railroad Parking Division.
"When the economy was really bad a couple of years ago, the lots were empty. Hardly anybody was going to New York," he said. "Now, more people are working, so there are more people using the station."
In 2010, the Police Department issued 3,600 railroad parking permits. Along with the Leroy West lot at Darien station, Westport has the highest ratio of permits issued for each railroad parking space, 2.7, among SWRPA member municipalities.
To improve railroad parking availability, the SWRPA study offers a number of recommendations for the Saugatuck station, several of which relate to the redistribution of permit and daily parking spaces among the eight commuter lots.
The Police Department already employs a similar strategy at the Saugatuck station by calibrating the allotment of daily parking spots. If, for instance, permit spaces are vacant after 10 a.m. in Lot 8, which is adjacent to Interstate 95, those spots will be opened up for daily parkers as well.
The SWRPA study also suggests that spaces reserved for station tenants be converted into permit spots, another change the Police Department is pursuing. If the Westport Taxi service seeks a new permanent lease at the station -- it is currently housed there under a month-to-month agreement -- the town will offer that business eight reserved spaces, instead of its current allotment of 16, to create eight more spots for permit-holders, Koskinas said.
In the spring, the Police Department will also begin to convert some of the Saugatuck station's one-hour spaces into permit-holder spots.
Not mentioned in the SWRPA study is another potential means of meeting the demand for more railroad parking, one that several Westport public officials have publicly contemplated in recent years: construction of a new parking structure at the Saugatuck station.
"We have to find some way to build a parking structure which is not a blight on the landscape," said state Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, a member of the General Assembly's Transportation Committee. "I think we need to create more parking at the train station."
Others, however, are not convinced that the Saugatuck station needs a parking expansion.
"There'd be strong opposition against building any form of parking structure by those who want to preserve the character and quality of Saugatuck," said Representative Town Meeting member Matthew Mandell. He represents District 1, which includes Saugatuck.
"Before we start putting more people on the platforms, we need to address the infrastructure problems with the trains themselves," Mandell said. "There's tremendous overcrowding."
The Police Department would "not be against a parking garage," Koskinas said.
Such a project would likely take years to complete, based on funding challenges alone. The DOT has indicated its reluctance in recent years to finance several proposed infrastructure improvement initiatives in Westport. For instance, a prospective second pedestrian crosswalk at the intersection of Post Road East and Bulkley Avenue near the Shake Shack burger restaurant would have to be solely funded by the town and private contributors, said First Selectman Gordon Joseloff.
Paying for a new parking structure could also require raising parking fees. Management of the commuter lots has already grown more expensive in recent years. The Board of Selectmen last year raised annual railroad parking permits from $225 to $325 and daily fees from $4 to $5 to close a deficit in the town's Railroad Parking Fund. Another fee hike for infrastructure improvements would be acceptable, said Easton resident Hatem Elwardany, who has a parking permit at the Saugatuck station for his commute to Grand Central Terminal.
"If they were to raise the fees to generate more revenue for that, I think people would accept it," Elwardany said.
Meanwhile, many other Metro-North riders like Healy show increasing impatience with the current parking crunch at the Metro-North lots. A continued lack of spaces, the Wilton resident, said could force more rail passengers to switch to driving.
"They're really curtailing the convenience of train travel," Healy said. "It's impacting not just me, but others as well, by being so inhospitable."