Commuter parking lot is lost and found MTA redeems self after mistake


November 22, 1993

Today, we offer a tale to make the blood boil.

Here are the basic elements of our little drama in roughly their order of appearance:

1. A guy who can't find a parking space.

2. The Intrepid Commuter.

3. At least 250 angry people.

4. The Mass Transit Administration.

5. Utter stupidity.

6. An act of redemption.

Our story begins last Wednesday when we received a telephone call from Avon Mackel, an Ellicott City resident who commutes to work in Washington on a Maryland Rail Commuter (MARC) train from Halethorpe.

Mr. Mackel was unhappy. He couldn't find a parking space at the Halethorpe Station because on Monday, the MTA had fenced off nearly half of the lot.

The MTA had warned commuters the previous Friday that something was up. A one-page notice told commuters they'd lose 100 of the 250 spaces while a contractor renovated and expanded the facility, putting in new blacktop and landscaping.

But what about the 100-car overflow?

Well, many of the ousted commuters parked along the side of Southwestern Boulevard (U.S. Route 1) beneath Francis Avenue only to find parking tickets pasted to their cars at day's end.

"Here MARC raised their rates [19 percent last month], and we lose half our parking," said Mr. Mackel. "It boggles the mind."

But wait, it gets worse.

Intrepid Commuter called the MTA with questions. Was this necessary? Why are cars getting tickets? Where are people supposed to park?

Our questions brought an immediate change. Rather than close half the lot, the MTA closed it all on Thursday morning.

"This is absolutely outrageous and ridiculous," said an even more irate Mr. Mackel when he called us back Thursday. "They've totally put us out."

We expressed Mr. Mackel's outrage (accompanied by our own) directly to MTA Administrator John A. Agro Jr. After some internal fact-finding, he determined it was all a big mistake.

First, the MTA should have made accommodations for the overflow cars before construction ever started, Mr. Agro said. Secondly, the Thursday shutdown was caused by an apparent "miscommunication."

Mr. Agro said he told MTA Police and customer service representatives to be at the lot Thursday morning to "monitor the situation and make sure [parking] tickets aren't given out." Incredibly, that was somehow interpreted to mean: Don't let anybody park there.

"As soon as we learned about that [misinterpretation], the correction was made, and people were allowed to park on the lot," Mr. Agro said. But most commuters had already been inconvenienced by mid-morning, when spaces were made available again.

To make amends to his MARC customers, Mr. Agro decided on Friday to postpone the project until spring. By the time you read this today, the contractor should have pulled up stakes at Halethorpe and won't return until March at the earliest.

"In all honesty, we didn't think this was in the best interest of the customer," said Mr. Agro, who spent Thursday evening at the station talking to Halethorpe commuters. "It would have meant long walks in the coldest months with snow and rain and darkness."

We applaud Mr. Agro's actions. MTA officials estimate it will cost the agency no more than $2,000 to compensate the contractor for his trouble.

The project is still worthwhile, of course. The frequently crowded MARC Halethorpe lot is crumbling and needs repair. The MTA ultimately will be adding 150 badly needed parking spaces.

But the incident raises some troubling questions. During his first year in office, Mr. Agro has insisted that his top priorities are customer satisfaction and rebuilding the falling mass transit ridership. The agency has undergone a reorganization aimed at making the MTA more professional and efficient.

The Halethorpe experience seems to contradict all those goals, a point even Mr. Agro readily acknowledges.

"We dropped the ball on this one," he said.

Mr. Agro said he hopes the incident will serve as a reminder to MTA employees that the agency's top three priorities are, "the customer, the customer, the customer."

Incidentally, the MTA is offering to intercede on behalf of those commuters who received parking tickets last week. For information, contact the MTA's customer service staff at 333-3322.

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