Increased use of rail lines leaves no place to park

By Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff
May 24, 2008

Taking an Amtrak or Shoreline East train out of Old Saybrook used to be a cinch: Drive to the station, grab a parking spot and hop on the train.

Now, it’s getting tricky. With more gas-strapped commuters using mass transit, police officials say the parking lot is overflowing and cars are lining up along North Main Street.

“It has certainly increased with the increase of gas prices,” Lt. Michael Spera said. “People are doing the right thing by using mass transit. Unfortunately, the parking designed for that transportation center is not adequate anymore.”

Spera said the crush has been worsening in recent months. The Police Department has not issued more tickets because it is legal to park all day on the streets in the area, but officials put up some “no parking” signs to keep the entrance to a cemetery clear.

“Last year, if you drove down North Main Street you would see no cars whatsoever parked on either side of the road,” Spera said. “Now, it’s an everyday occurrence.”

As gas prices coast past $4 a gallon, transportation officials throughout the region said that they are seeing increased demand at local Shoreline East, Metro-North and Amtrak train stations.

Ridership on Metro-North’s New Haven line increased more than 4 percent, or 128,500 riders, for the month of April, versus one year ago. Year-to-date totals for the first four months of 2008 are up 5 percent over 2007, to nearly 12 million riders.

Figures for the Shoreline East service were not available, but Judd Everhart, a spokesman for the state Department of Transportation, said that ridership for the New Haven-New London service is also “trending upward.”

Guilford First Selectman Carl Balestracci said the parking lot at the town’s train station — which opened in 2005 — is packed every day, and has been for at least the past six months. Dozens of drivers park on an area of crushed asphalt beyond the paved lot, which has 175 spots.

The area is owned by Amtrak, so Guilford police do not issue tickets there. The state Department of Transportation plans to add about 90 parking spots on the north side of the train tracks, but work is not scheduled to begin until late 2009.

Balestracci said he thinks more Guilford residents are riding the train for economic and lifestyle reasons. He added that some people who live in downtown Guilford walk or bike to the station, eliminating the need for parking.

“My wife and I just used the train three weeks ago to New York City: We hopped on in Guilford, went to New Haven, crossed the platform and went to New York,” he said. “It’s so much more convenient.”

Branford First Selectman Anthony “Unk” DaRos said that parking at Branford’s station is also at maximum capacity. The station has about 200 parking spots as well as a drop-off area that DaRos said he hopes more people will use.

“Our train station parking is full every day and I anticipate that it’s probably going to get more of a demand on it as the price of gas keeps going up,” he said. “It certainly looks like it’s being used more now than it ever has and parking at our location is a problem.”

But DaRos added that he does not think that rising gas prices alone are fueling the mass transit surge.

“It’s becoming a popular service,” he said. “We were going to the max before the gas crisis, so I think it’s just a good service that’s improving.”

With the increasing popularity — and overcrowding — of several train stations, some communities are hoping to build their own.

The Department of Transportation has announced plans to start work on a train station in West Haven, with 1,000 parking spots, in fall 2009. The station could cost as much as $100 million.

East Haven officials are also interested in bringing a station to the town, although discussion is just starting, Mayor April Capone Almon said.

“We do have a lot of commuters in this area,” she said. “If we had the station at a central location, people may even take it into New Haven. With gas prices being what they are, you don’t necessarily think of mass transit just for longer trips.”

Capone Almon said that the station is a “long-range plan,” but she has spoken about the idea with U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro’s office and others in the railroad industry.

In Old Saybrook, town officials hope to begin talks with the DOT about additional parking at the station. Other than that, Spera said, there is not much the town can do to alleviate parking in the short term. Train riders are already using the lot in a nearby shopping center, which creates more problems for customers and business owners.

“The town needs to support those who use mass transit,” he said. “We’re hoping that the DOT comes down to the site (and) takes a look at the parking issue and tries to come up with a solution — a solution that works for the town of Old Saybrook, works for the commuters and works for the Department of Transportation. But something needs to happen.”

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