They’ve done it so many times before, and last week they got together to do it again. Students and administration held a forum-style discussion about campus parking issues last week that have lately been a source of unrest within the university community.
As he lounged on the seats of the Woodbury Center’s amphitheater, Chief Student Affairs Officer Craig Hutchinson recalled aloud that this was not the first time he had been a party to this exact discussion. Eight or nine times before, he said, he has met with students like this to hear their complaints about parking on campus.
“We know we have a problem with parking,” he said. Since the garage was built in 2003, Hutchinson claims, a central problem for the university has been crowding in the 1,150 spot garage.
Though there were few students actually present at the forum, those who were there were not shy in voicing their questions. As students drifted in and out of the open meeting, they repeated the same question over and over – why is the garage now open to the public free of charge?
They wanted to know – who’s parking in the garage, anyway?
Isaac Misiuk, a student senator, explained at the meeting that he and a few other senators had gone into the garage to figure that out, and they ended up with a less than definitive answer. “There was a huge number of untagged cars,” Misiuk said.
When asked if the university was taking any measures to figure out who is filling up the spaces, Hutchinson said that they were not currently planning on initiating any effort of the kind. Such an investigation, he said, would be pointless. From his own investigations, the surrounding community members and businesses have no desire or need to park in the garage.
“I would be willing to wager that a majority of the untagged cars belong to students,” he said.
Chris Camire, chair of the student senate, asked how feasible it would be for daytime conferences, during the peak 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. hours, to limit the number of spaces they use in the garage. “I don’t know that it would be good for public relations for that event,” Hutchinson said.
Students have not been required to use IDs to get access to the garage for a year, and the public can also access the garage for free. In the past, a university employee was paid to take tickets from visitors exiting the garage, where they paid for the time they left their vehicle. Hutchinson pointed to the costliness of this method as one of the main reasons the garage changed. “We used to collect $5,000 a year, and pay a staff person $25,000 to collect the money,” he said. “We are not looking to put that method back into use.”
Some students offered solutions and others shared stories about how the situation is affecting them. Maha Jaber, student and president of the Multi-Cultural Student Association, like many students has two full days of class. Hers are mostly in Payson-Smith Hall, and because the lots and the garage are often full, she sometimes parks on Falmouth Street where the spots are metered. “I go and get $20 in quarters so that I can park,” she said. “If I’m paying a transportation fee, why should I pay? I don’t want to pay.”
Leah Fischer, a senior English major, is extremely frustrated with the parking situation. “I literally drove around for 20 minutes looking for parking.” One day, she just went home after a long, frustrating repetition of loops up and down the rows of filled spaces. “I don’t want to show up to class an hour late. I even show up 15 minutes early to find parking, and I can’t.”
Hutchinson listed a few possible solutions that would expand the 2,000-space parking facilities. The area between the Wishcamper Center and I-295 could also be expanded, he said, but that idea might pose environmental issues. He stressed that cost-efficient solutions must be found as the parking garage itself is already a huge university expense.
“The parking garage is the single most expensive structure on campus,” he said, and by “on campus” he means across all three USM campuses and all 85 buildings. “We spend a half a million per year on the bus services, 1.4 to 1.5 million on transportation and parking and 600,000 for the garage mortgage.” In response to a question about building a similar garage in Gorham to help alleviate parking issues there, he was brief. “The garage in Gorham is on the ‘noodle list.’ The going rate on lots is $40,000 per space [to construct]. That’s the issue.”
One option discussed throughout the meeting was to expand the traditional 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. day, allowing for less crowding of available parking during peak hours. Hutchinson strongly supported this solution and stated that he thinks it will do a lot to alleviate parking issues.
Julia Pond, coordinator of commuter student involvement, brought up the idea of a work study position in which a student would operate the parking booth according to the old method in which the public was required to pay to park in the garage. She also suggested that USM encourage green-minded students to share their ideas about how to incentivize carpooling and make USM more efficient. She mentioned that she has just created a Facebook page dedicated to helping USM students make connections in order to carpool. The page is called USM Husky Rides.
Chris O’Connor, director of Portland student life, offered that perhaps we should look to see what other universities are doing to handle constraints on parking while trying to increase retention and student enrollment.
“The administration can’t own all of this. It’s going to take some people to take this forward,” he said, suggesting a student group organize through the student senate to continue to discuss the issue and push solutions forward. “The problem’s not going away in the future. You guys change frequently, but the conversation hasn’t changed,” he said.
Hutchinson chimed in, reiterating O’Connor’s point. “The problem is not going to go away, but I am certain that we can address this issue by adjusting the 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. schedule,” he said. “And we’d like to go from 9,400 to 10,000 [students].”
O’Connor added to this point. “We have to frame this from a retention standpoint.”
In the end, Pond stood with a giant marker and jotted down a list of solutions and the time frame in which they hope to accomplish them. But for now, we’re just going to have to wait and see if there will be another meeting next year.