While all eyes have been on Commerce Drive and the development of the Fairfield Metro Center, the town's Parking Authority has been quietly moving forward.
PA Chairman Bob Torok, who joined in 1997, points to the spark beginning with the Southport commuter survey conducted last summer. Based on the feedback, they knew what commuters wanted, which was a newsstand/coffee shop, and a tenant is closing in on the final permitting necessary and should open over the next few months.
At present, 80 percent of permit holders at the main station have Fairfield addresses with 4.5 percent living in Southport, 6 percent from Easton, 4 percent from Trumbull and 2.5 percent from Bridgeport. In Southport, 50 percent of the permit holders live in the area with 40 percent from Fairfield.
"We need more landscaping," Torok noted, happy to be closing in on finally formulating a five-year-plan, something he's been championing for some time. "What brought the plan into sharp focus was the survey feedback which had powerful response. What we did was invite the Public Works department to come in. We identified items we wanted help with while we obtained quotes for the bigger projects. It was a superb meeting with Rich White, and within a month, they were knocking off mandatory maintenance items that had been delayed due to Metro Center." Torok hopes to present the PA's five-year-plan to First Selectman Ken Flatto next month.
Some of the items on their wish list, based on the customer feedback, include improving the canopies on the stairways, including heating coils to help keep ice from forming during the colder months. Complicating their ability to move forward is how the 2009 federal stimulus dollars are being allocated for work on all New Haven line stations. The hope is that the money will go toward replacing northbound lighting at Southport station plus a small platform shelter for those waiting.
Torok says that Cindy Placko, the PA manager, is coordinating the town's needs with the state Department of Transportation and looking for grant monies to come through. In addition to the canopies, the PA wants to even out the landings on both sides of the tracks and improve signage.
The PA, the body where I first began my public service, has evolved so the five members all serve on sub-committees or the two standing committees, allowing them greater knowledge of the issues before them. Deputy Chair Michael Herley, who replaced me on the PA and who just replaced Jim Walsh on the Representative Town Meeting, noted, "We're trying to serve a customer base. We're trying to take care of the parking lot and to satisfy the commuters after many years of neglect."
The PA, a state-sanctioned group to watch over the lots and buildings, recently paid off its bond, which was obtained to purchase land to expand the main parking lot 20 years ago. Since then, they had other work to do and were cash-strapped, so they quietly negotiated with the town to briefly forgo $1 million in payments which are now being repaid.
"Once the Metro Center was put into place, it gave us an opportunity to look at our own selves and...to bring things up to date and modernize," Herley said. "We wanted to rehabilitate both stations. The two buildings cost nearly $1 million and the town allowed us to do that." A new 10-year lease agreement between the PA and the town was signed in March 2009. The initial payment was for $600,000 this year and decreases by about $50,000 a year for the life of the deal.
The $170 per-six-month fee has not been raised in well over a decade, a benefit usually overlooked when everyone is screaming about rates going up and government run amok. That has, though, limited the PA in its ability to save funds for maintenance or other projects. To raise additional resources, the lease agreements with the tenants – including Fairfield Cab and Nauti Dolphin – will evolve to market rates. The taxi operation has shared room with the eastbound waiting room and has been a source of contention over the years.
"Ken Flatto brought commuter complaints to our attention so we had a meeting with the police to discuss it," Herley explained. "Then there was a special meeting held at the station to take a look at the conditions. We walked away saying there were items that shouldn't be stored in the open. Secondly, we respect the taxi company which provides an important service to the town and they provide added security by being open 24/7. We appreciate that; but we recognize that it was a giant waiting room and the first thing you saw was the taxi equipment."
The result was a recently installed wall to divide the space between the cab company and the commuters. "We felt that the workers deserved their own space but management didn't communicate the changes to the employees," Herley said of the recent controversy.
"One of the things we're seriously looking at is overselling the lots" as another way to raise funds,Torok said. Currently, Fairfield oversells the spaces by twice over in Fairfield and 1.5 times in Southport, compared with Westport's four-time oversell. Working with the auditors, the PA is examining by how much they can sell more permits than spaces based on actual usage.
A complicating factor is that the opening of the Metro Center has been continually delayed but once it opens, 250 spots along Carter Henry Drive will be returned to the town. And while the PA would like to be involved in managing the new station, the state has reserved the right to run it.
"We need to modernize our own management systems," Torok insists. "We need to get more technologically advanced." The PA, to its credit, was the first agency in town to allow online bill paying. They have been talking with the police about mobile ticketing devices that the PA would use for day parking permits as opposed to the current mail-in envelopes that are time consuming to process. The police would adopt the same model for their ticketing needs.
Another way to grow more efficient will have a direct effect on commuters when the PA switches from twice-yearly payments to a single annual payment of $340 beginning July 1, 2011.
"We all bring different strengths and skills," Herley said. "Bob Comers is a retired police captain, who wrote our original procedures in 1982 and now he's going to update them. Ken has been just great with finding the right type of people who are smart and interested. We have a good mix of skill sets, who have a passion for this. We're making small improvements over weeks and then months leading to significant benefits for the commuters long-term."
Robert Greenberger, a former RTM member, is vice chairman of the Democratic Town Committee.