Long Island Rail Road parking lots — already bursting at the seams at key stations because of overwhelming demand — are likely to be inundated with thousands more cars in the next several years.
That's bad news for commuters because the railroad says it has no plans to add spaces. LIRR president Patrick Nowakowski said the railroad does not control parking at most of its stations because the lots are owned and managed by local municipalities or private operators.
"There's not a lot we can do about it. You can't tell a private-property owner what to do with his land," he said. "We want to attract ridership. We want to do things that will help us get more riders, so parking is certainly part of that."
However, Nowakowski said, "To dictate to a town, 'We want to build a 1,000- or 2,000-car facility in the middle of your town,' it doesn't always go over."
Towns and villages say they do their best to balance commuters' needs with residents' reluctance to construct multilevel parking garages in their neighborhoods.
"People do not like tiered parking," said one Nassau village official who asked not to be named. "I think people have a vision of the old A&S and Yankee Stadium tiered parking, which were a nightmare to get in and out of and aesthetically not pleasing."
More than one-third of the LIRR's 107 stations that have dedicated parking areas are at 90 percent capacity, and 15 stations are already 100 percent full.
Demand for the 68,000 available parking spots shows no sign of slowing, the railroad said. The LIRR, the nation's busiest commuter railroad, carries about 150,000 passengers each day and is on pace to shatter its all-time annual ridership record of 87.4 million this year.
System expected to grow
The system has projected carrying an additional 15,000 riders each day upon the completion of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's East Side Access project to connect the LIRR to Grand Central Terminal by 2022.
At Long Island's busiest station, Hicksville, there are fewer than 3,700 parking spots for some 22,000 daily commuters. The parking supply is "pathetic," said Jeff Roberts, 52, a Hicksville commuter who works for Cablevision, Newsday's parent company.
"It fills up by 7:30. So, if you want to take an 8 o'clock train, you can't," Roberts said. "The bottom line is . . . more people are commuting, and there's just not enough room for them."
At some of the LIRR's busiest stations, such as Great Neck and Hicksville — all at 100 percent capacity — commuters struggle each day to find a spot, often arriving at a station a half-hour before their scheduled train.
With little or no mass transit options to get to and from many LIRR stations, many motorists sync their morning arrivals with those of eastbound trains, hoping to pull into a spot as another car pulls out. Even commuters who pay for parking permits are often left without anywhere to leave their cars.
"Unless I get there by 7:40, there's no parking," said Sadia Ahmed, 31, an attorney who routinely chooses between getting a summons for parking illegally at the crowded Deer Park station or being late to work. "It feels so wrong that you already pay $338 a month for bad service . . . and on top of that, once a week you're also getting a $60 ticket. I'd almost rather not work."
Commuters' exasperation with the parking shortage was evident in the LIRR's latest annual customer satisfaction survey, released earlier this month. Although customers reported being 82 percent satisfied overall with their home board station, only 58 percent said they were satisfied with the availability of parking there on weekdays — a drop of 2 percentage points from last year. It was one of the lowest satisfaction scores in the entire survey, behind only the typically low marks for restrooms on trains and at stations.
A priority here, elsewhere
With 10.8 billion public transportation trips taken in the United States in 2014 — the most in nearly 60 years — parking shortages are being felt at commuter rail stations across the country. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo singled out the problem as a top priority in his proposed 2015 state budget, earmarking $150 million to build garages near commuter train stations, including in Ronkonkoma and near the Nassau Hub.
The LIRR has set aside $40 million for a new garage in the MTA's proposed $26.1 billion capital plan. But the LIRR, which has only built three garages over the past 20 years, said no specific projects are underway or even being considered.
The key obstacle: At most of its stations, the LIRR has no say in parking issues.
More than three-quarters of all available parking spaces at LIRR stations are owned and managed by local municipalities or private operators. Another 13 percent are owned by the LIRR but leased to municipalities to manage. In comparison, the LIRR's sister railroad, Metro-North, owns 41 percent of its parking lots and garages and leases them to private operators.
The LIRR owns and operates just 5 percent of all parking spaces at stations.
In a statement, the LIRR said "local municipalities are better positioned, from a logistical and geographical perspective" to address maintenance issues, including snow clearing. Handing off its parking operations also reduces the LIRR's costs and liability.
The variety of parking lot operators at different stations serves to frustrate commuters and makes it nearly impossible to achieve uniformity in parking rules.
The parking regulations at one Wyandanch lot are so confusing that the Town of Babylon recently voided about 60 summonses mistakenly written by a town enforcement officer who wrongly believed the lot was reserved for town residents.
'Hodgepodge' of rates
Parking spaces can fall into myriad categories (resident, nonresident, business, daily, hourly, etc.) -- each with specific rates that vary wildly from municipality to municipality and from year to year.
As one example, the Town of Huntington in 2012 proposed raising the parking rate by 1,100 percent, to $600 from $50 annually. After a strong backlash from the public, town officials settled on tripling it to $150 for nonresidents, and raising it to $75 for residents.
"It's a hodgepodge, the way things are set up," said Steven Dombrower of Greenlawn, who fought the town's "unbelievable" rate hike proposal. "At the end of the day, even though it's the Long Island Rail Road's station, it's still town property, so the town is still going to control it."
The LIRR's Nowakowski said he shares riders' frustrations, but said the agency "can't be the big dog" in enacting change. The LIRR has offered to largely fund the construction of garages at some particularly cramped stations, including Rockville Centre and Port Washington, but municipalities typically reply with a "No thanks."
The main stumbling point has been the requirement that any garage built by the LIRR, using federal funding, must be open to the public, without residency restrictions.
"We won't do that in Port Washington," said North Hempstead Town Board member Dina M. De Giorgio, who has opposed efforts to build a garage near the crowded station, even as a planned expansion of the LIRR's storage tracks there could eliminate more than 40 spaces in an already-packed parking lot.
De Giorgio said inviting commuters from other communities to Port Washington would make traffic "much, much worse," while potentially still not creating enough new spaces for village residents. "It would be a disaster."
Even where municipalities have proposed building resident-only parking structures, communities have shot them down, concerned about the aesthetics and dangers of unsightly and largely unsupervised garages.
But many suburban planners say those concerns are mostly unfounded. As part of its "Build a Better Burb" initiative, the nonprofit Rauch Foundation, based in Garden City, challenged architects in 2013 to come up with innovative design ideas for parking garages near LIRR stations.
Architects came back with several dynamic and attractive concepts, including a garage in Rockville Centre that included public space for farmers markets and rooftop tennis courts.
Rather than adding to the 8,300 acres of surface parking surrounding LIRR stations on Long Island, the Rauch planners said garages present an opportunity to incorporate parking into smart-growth development, with commercial and residential properties built into the structures.
"We really did them as ways to try to expand the conversation on Long Island; to give people images of what could be; to try to replace people's fears about the big, hulking cement, poured-concrete garage that nobody wants to walk in; to say, 'It doesn't have to be that way,' " said Ann Golub, director of the Rauch Foundation's Long Island Index project.
'Price therapy' first?
But University of California, Los Angeles, urban planning Professor Donald Shoup said, even under the LIRR's intense ridership pressures, erecting garages should only be considered as a last resort.
Shoup, who has studied parking extensively, said the LIRR and municipalities may be able to put a big dent in their parking woes by simply following the economic concept of supply and demand: When parking is most in demand, charge more, thereby encouraging commuters with other options, such as walking or being dropped off, to leave their cars at home.
"If you have an ache or a pain and you go to the doctor, you'd rather have him recommend physical therapy before drugs or surgery. I think with parking, we ought to go with price therapy before we talk about building garages," said Shoup, author of "The High Cost of Free Parking."
Although increasing parking rates at stations may be a tough sell for commuters, others have similarly suggested measures to dissuade commuters from taking up parking spots.
In her fight to reduce parking congestion at Syosset station, Laura Schultz, president of Residents for a More Beautiful Syosset, has lobbied the Town of Oyster Bay to tighten its "loosey-goosey" policy of allowing up to five resident parking permits per household at $20 each.
"What's $20?" Schultz asked. "It's ridiculous."
For Schultz and her Syosset neighbors, the parking problem has extended to noncommuters. LIRR customers, left with few options, have increasingly resorted to parking on residential streets — even blocking driveways. "One of these days we're going to be renting out our driveway to make a little extra income," Schultz joked.
Some municipalities have taken innovative measures to help address parking shortages at train stations. At the Metro-North Railroad station in Briarcliff Manor, Westchester, commuters have the option of valet parking.
On Long Island, the Village of North Hills provides rush-hour shuttle service from Village Hall to the Manhasset train station. Long Beach has added extra bicycle racks at its LIRR station.
And in Port Washington, the Town of North Hempstead and the state Department of Transportation recently partnered to develop a mobile application that would match commuters in the village willing to share a ride to the station, where they could park in spots especially reserved for them. Paul Spreer, director of the DOT's 511NY Rideshare program on Long Island, teamed with North Hempstead town board member De Giorgio to develop the "Pwarkit" app, and hopes to be able to roll out similar programs at other LIRR stations.
Although ride-sharing has been around as long as cars, Spreer said he believes commuters are more apt to embrace it than ever.
"You're dealing with a cultural shift. You have a millennial generation that is more willing to give up their car before they give up their phone," Spreer said. "It's one of the many solutions that can help provide relief to that parking stress. The idea is to build a robust enough system that you can effect that kind of change."
Nowakowski said the LIRR is doing its part to reduce the number of commuters driving to stations, including by supporting transportation hubs with connections to buses, such as in Mineola, and offering its "Uniticket" discount fares for NICE bus customers.
The LIRR has also gotten behind transit-oriented developments, where homes are built near train stations and parking options are abundant. As one example, the LIRR recently opened a $29 million, five-story garage at the Wyandanch Rising development.
"What I can't see us doing is driving the change, and telling Hicksville they should be more like Mineola. That's not our role," LIRR chief Nowakowski said. "They need to get there. And we need to be out there saying, very much, 'If you do change your mind, we're here to work with you.' "
150,000: Number of unique LIRR riders on an average weekday.
15,000: The number of additional passengers the LIRR expects to carry into Manhattan on an average weekday following the completion of East Side Access in 2022.
68,000: The number of available parking spots at LIRR stations.
87.4 million: Annual ridership record, which the LIRR expects to break this year.
Planners and experts have come up with several suggestions to ease the LIRR’s parking crunch. Here are some:
Garages: The LIRR has offered to build and largely pay for garages at some overburdened stations, but they could not have any residency restrictions. A number of municipalities have turned down the offers.
Congestion pricing: Charging more to park during the busiest times of the day could encourage some commuters to pursue alternatives, like being dropped off at a station or walking.
Taking back lots: If the LIRR reclaimed control of some lots after leases with municipalities expired, it could have more say in how they are operated.
Ride sharing: Port Washington has teamed with the state Department of Transportation to develop a mobile app that pairs commuters who are willing to ride together to the LIRR station, where a reserved spot would await them.
Transit-oriented development: Building downtown areas near intermodal train stations could make it easier for many commuters to get to and from their jobs without their cars.
Public transportation: The LIRR offers discounted combined fares for NICE Bus riders. Some municipalities and employers have also offered shuttle buses to and from stations.
A regional parking commission: The LIRR Commuter Council has called for the creation of a commission of representatives from the LIRR, Nassau, Suffolk and other municipalities that would set parking policies.