On track? Selectmen discuss boosting RR parking fees
The prospect of imposing higher parking rates at Darien's railroad stations was again discussed, though no decisions were made, by the Parking Authority at its Monday meeting.
"We've danced around the idea of whether we should increase the annual parking permit rate for many years now," said First Selectman Jayme Stevenson. The Board of Selectmen acts as the town's Parking Authority.
The parking rates in Darien -- $3 daily and $345 for an annual permit -- are among the lowest charged for other rail station in the area, according to Stevenson, however increasing rates would take convincing commuters of the value they would see.
"I am remembering comments from [former selectman] David Bayne last year that we need to promise the commuters that they're going to get something from rate increases," Stevenson said.
Last year, the Board of Selectmen attempted to increase the daily parking rates from $3 to $5, but it was not approved.
Revenue generated by the daily parking rates and annual permits are used exclusively for the railroad stations' lots. Some of the investments would include the installation of security cameras for the lots and stations, additional platform seating, extending the Noroton Heights platform canopy, resurfacing the lots and painting the exterior of the Darien station.
Stevenson said that she believes it was time for the town to look beyond an increase of $10 or $15 for the annual permit.
"I know it's going to be a hardship for some, I know," Stevenson said. "But we need to move some people off our wait list."
An increase in the yearly parking rate may discourage people who do not use their permit to give them up and instead use daily parking as needed, Tierney noted.
Jim Cameron, a member of the newly created parking advisory commission and a long-time advocate for commuters, told the board that he feels the rate increases are "appropriate," but that some commuters may not be convinced.
"When you hold your public hearing, you're going to hear from a lot of commuters who are saying, `I don't see any improvements, the only improvements that are very visible are for revenue enhancements,'" Cameron said. "Yeah, it's easier to pay for your parking at the machine and [the town will have] the license plate readers, but a commuter is not going to be able to point to anything and say, `Ah, that's where my additional parking rate is being spent.' "
Selectman Reilly Tierney, a commuter, told the board he sees issues with the current pay structure.
"The biggest thing that bothers me about the pricing structure is that the cost for a daily commuter voucher is just so much higher on an annualized basis than someone who got off the [wait] list," Tierney said.
Of the 30 train stations on the Metro-North New Haven line, which includes Darien and Noroton Heights, 27 charge $5 or more for daily parking. Bethel, Darien and Noroton Heights are the only stations on the New Haven and branch lines to charge less than that.
Cameron told the board that just because area communities have higher parking rates does not mean it should be the only argument for why Darien should increase its fees.
Tierney added that an increase in rates may discourage people from other towns to come to Darien for cheaper rates.
"Clearly we're below the market," Tierney said. "Everyone else knows we're below the market. They may not come here if we're not below the market.
Still, the answers to the problem will not be easy, Cameron said.
"Everyone thinks they have the answer to this parking issue," Cameron said. "If there were easy answers, they would have been achieved by now."
Securing a parking permit is a challenge. The wait for a permit at the Darien train station lot is 10 years, with 1,400 people on the list.
At the Noroton Heights lot, the wait is seven years and 1,100 people are on the list.
"A lot of people in Darien don't realize that just because you live in Darien doesn't mean you get priority with a permit," said Selectman Susan Marks.
Stevenson said that one of the things she was taking away from Monday's conversation was that short of adding new parking spaces, there would be "little else that will be pleasing enough to a commuter to support an increase."
Without the rate increases, the revenues generated from the parking fees would not cover the full cost of the projects that town wants to undertake, according to Town Administrator Karl Kilduff.
There are two different audiences that have to be considered when discussing a rate increase, Marks said.
"You have people with a permit who will not want to pay an increase and then people on the wait list who will pay anything to get a permit," Marks said.
Selectman Gerald Nielsen told the board they couldn't "kick this down the line anymore."
"You don't want to wait until you have a crisis," Nielsen said.
No changes can be made to the parking rates without a public hearing.
"You might need the auditorium," Cameron said of that prospect.
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