Parking at the Saugatuck Railroad Station. / Photo, Google streetview

By John Schwing

WESTPORT — For the first time in more than a decade, parking fees at the town’s railroad stations will be increased.

The Board of Selectwomen on Wednesday approved the higher fees as proposed by Police Chief Foti Koskinas, in his capacity as railroad operations director. The Police Department manages all aspects of Westport’s two rail depots.

Under the new fee structure, costs are:

Police Chief Foti Koskinas, in his capacity as railroad operations manager, at Wednesday’s meeting of the Board of Selectwomen, discussed the proposal to raise the cost of parking permits at the town’s railroad stations for the first time since 2011.
  • Single space: $325 rising to $400
  • Double space (two vehicles listed on a single permit): $450 increasing to $500
  • Daily: $5 rising to $6

Koskinas told the board the last time railroad parking fees were increased was 2011, and the changes proposed Wednesday were intended to take effect in 2020.

But with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic that year, which caused a sharp drop in commuting and the number of people parking in the rail lots, Koskinas said, “It would have been the wrong time” to impose higher fees.

The plan was put on hold until this year, the chief said, because the number of commuters parking at the stations has been steadily increasing since the height of the pandemic.

Koskinas said up to 85 percent of the parking lots’ capacity is now in use Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.

And while there currently is no waiting list for a permit, he urged anyone interested in acquiring one to “get ahead” of the anticipated demand, because officials expect 100 percent of the permits will be allotted shortly after Labor Day this year.

He said while the total number of parking permits sold for Westport’s train stations in recent years has varied from a low of about 3,600 to a high of approximately 4,300, the lots are monitored daily with the goal of assuring capacity between 95 to 100 percent.

A “delicate” balancing act is required between the actual usage of the lots versus the number of permits sold, he said, particularly to avoid “over-selling” to the point where commuters with permits cannot find a parking spot.

To achieve that balance, he added, adjustments are often made between the number of slots allotted for permit parking versus daily parking, depending on the patterns of use.

The chief said that despite not raising parking fees for 12 years, the railroad operations budget has never had a deficit and surpluses have been used to finance maintenance and improvement projects, such as building renovations and parking lot paving.

Should parking fees help subsidize transit services?

Koskinas also said he did not favor a suggestion to raise the daily parking fee higher than proposed — up to $7 — recently made by Westport Transit District Director Peter Gold.

Gold proposed that revenue generated by the higher daily parking fee be used to subsidize the transit district’s Wheels2U shuttle bus system, which provides weekday rides to and from the railroad stations.

Koskinas, however, said he felt an increase of that amount needs to be more widely discussed and better communicated with the permit-paying “stakeholders,” who he said essentially would be taxed to help pay for the buses.

That prompted questions from Selectwoman Candice Savin over whether the Board of Selectwomen, after approving any fee increases, has authority to direct how those revenues actually are spent.

How the town’s money is spent, Savin suggested, generally must be approved by the Board of Finance and Representative Town Meeting, and not the selectwomen.

After some back-and-forth between Savin and Koskinas over the question, Assistant Town Attorney Eileen Flug reminded the selectwomen the only issue before the board Wednesday was the proposed fee increases, and not how the money would be spent. But expenditures, she added, are ultimately in the hands of the finance board and the RTM.

Gold later came to the podium to press his case for higher daily parking fees, part of which he said could help subsidize the Wheels2U bus service. 

He said letters from the state Department of Transportation and Town Attorney’s Office support his view that the town’s share of revenue generated by parking fees can be spent on other transit programs.

He suggested that increasing the daily parking fee even to $6.50, rather than $7, would help support the transit program, a public service he contended “should be paid for” by the town like many other programs that are subsidized by public revenue.

As for Koskinas’s argument that there needs to be a broader discussion about using parking fees to pay for other programs, Gold said the town routinely uses tax revenue and fees to subsidize various services without conducting a survey so transit programs should not be singled out.

He said there is broad support for the Wheels2U service, noting that the RTM, in the last several years, has restored money cut for the program by the Board of Finance. This year, he added, more than 300 letters in support of restoring full Wheels2U funding have been filed in advance of the RTM budget vote next month.

“The bottom line,” Gold said, is that “if the town wants transit services, the town needs to provide the funds to operate the services.

“It’s not magic.”

Using part of the revenue generated by railroad parking fees would provide an another source of funding for local transit programs, Gold said, which has been a directive from the Board of Finance and RTM.

Harris Falk, an RTM member from District 2, supported Gold’s idea of using a portion of parking permit revenues to supplement transit services.

The Board of Selectwomen, however, agreed to follow the recommendations of the Police Department and unanimously approved the new fees as proposed.

John Schwing, the Westport Journal consulting editor, has held senior editorial and writing posts at southwestern Connecticut media outlets for four decades. Learn more about us here.