A lot of lots, but not enough

Mass transit riders, car-poolers cruise streets for parking

June 26, 2008|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Sun Reporter

On Avon Court in Halethorpe, there's an unwritten law that says the parking space in front of your home is your spot. But the commuters who flock to the Halethorpe MARC station don't follow that code. They see the absence of no-parking signs as an invitation to leave their cars on the residential street - especially as the 770-space lot at the station fills up every day.

The daily influx of outsiders has led to ugly scenes between residents and commuters, sometimes involving calls to police.

Variations of the problems in Halethorpe are playing out across Maryland as parking lots that serve commuter bus riders, MARC and light rail passengers fill up with commuters, a growing number as many rebel against $4-a-gallon gasoline by switching to transit.

Park-and-ride lots for commuter buses are filling up as far west as Hagerstown, as far south as Calvert County and as far east as Kent Island. Besides Halethorpe, MARC's lots are overflowing in Perryville, Aberdeen, Point of Rocks and West Baltimore.

Even the long-derided light rail system is developing capacity issues at its once-sleepy Cromwell Station in Glen Burnie, the Mass Transit Administration says.

For transit advocates, the full parking lots are a beautiful sight - proof of what they hope will be a long-term shift away from reliance on single-rider vehicles from home to workplace. But for commuters, the crowded lots are frustrating.

"You have to get up really early to get a space," said Joe Kabando, a MARC rider who lives and boards in Aberdeen. When the lot is full, harried commuters sometimes grab whatever spot they can find on the street. "We're still getting tickets, and we still have a lot of problems with parking."

For transit administrators, the crowded lots are a mixed blessing. While they welcome the additional riders, the recent influx has outstripped their ability to add parking capacity.

Jawauna Greene, a spokeswoman for the Mass Transit Administration, said her agency is taking a "comprehensive look" at its parking resources. But adding lots of new parking spaces can't be done quickly or easily.

In some places, such as Halethorpe, the spaces created in large expansion projects have already been overwhelmed by new riders. At others, such as the Mount Washington light rail station, there's no more land available.

Other stations are in town centers, where municipal governments have to answer to residents and businesses who want strict enforcement of parking restrictions.

Where land is available, there's no guarantee that agencies can put it to use quickly. The MTA's Greene said it takes an average of two to three years to get all the approvals for expanding a surface lot.

For a parking garage, it can take up to seven years to go through the process of environmental impact statements, public hearings, budget approvals, design and construction, she said.

The State Highway Administration, which offers about 12,000 spaces in park-and-rides around the state, faces many of the same hurdles when one of its lots fills up, said Doug Simmons, a deputy administrator.

In some cases, overflowing park-and-ride lots lie within a few miles of others that are far from full. For instance, two lots with 686 spaces at Route 32 and Broken Land Parkway in Columbia have filled to overflowing despite four expansions. The lots are only a few miles from a less crowded park-and-ride at U.S. 29 and Route 216. But persuading commuters to change their habits is a challenge.

"To move somebody to another lot and take them out of their normal travel path, that's tricky," Simmons said.

While transportation agencies scramble to find way to provide more spaces, frustration grows - for commuters and residents of neighborhoods that are forced to accommodate the overflow parking.

Rick Gonsalves, a Baltimore resident who catches the MARC train at Halethorpe to commute to his job in Washington, said that when he parked on Avon Court, residents "turned into some kind of vigilante group" and "ran me out of here."

Because he works a later-than-normal shift, Gonsalves catches a train that departs when the MTA lot and other nearby spaces are full. So he said he was forced to look for a spot on residential streets. He thought he had found a good solution when he discovered Avon Court. But when he parked there one day recently, police were summoned after he was confronted by outraged neighbors.

The police upheld his right to park there, Gonsalves said, but when he returned to his car that night he found a scratch that hadn't been there before. He said he has since found a place to park a few minutes away.

Rodney Sparrow, a resident of Avon Court, acknowledged that the spaces were legally open to all but said that commuter parking had become "a major problem."

"They have zero respect for the people who live on this street," Sparrow said. He and other residents are taking steps to petition Baltimore County to restrict all-day parking to those who live in the neighborhood.

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