More than two years after a global pandemic, a visual sign of recovery has taken an unusual form – parking lots at train stations.
Parking lots remained mostly empty as the COVID-19 pandemic led to a partial shutdown of mainstream society. But as work-from-home and other restrictions begin to end, officials say train station parking spaces in the greater Bridgeport area are beginning to fill up again – but slowly.
“The waiting list has been drastically reduced because of the pandemic,” said Henry Jadach, executive director of the Milford Transit District. “You used to have to wait three years for a parking permit.”
He said the waiting list now has fewer than 100 spots and after the April 1 extension, anyone remaining on the list will have to wait at least six months before being offered a permit.
“We are now within our April 1 permit renewal deadline,” he said. “If all the people who have been offered permits decide to accept them, there will be approximately 425 permit holders in four permit lots.”
Jadach said the situation was vastly different during the pandemic, when train usage dropped to less than 5 percent at the start of the pandemic in 2020. The parking lots were almost empty.
But parking started coming back, Jadach said, as the conditions of the pandemic changed. Still, he said it was only about 50 percent of what it was in Milford before the pandemic.
The situation is similar in Fairfield, where there are three different stations operated by two different entities. There is no waiting list at the Fairfield Center and Southport stations, said Mackenzie Riley, a human resources specialist at the Fairfield Parking Authority.
“Parking at stations is gradually increasing,” she said. “It’s not back to pre-pandemic levels.”
Historically, Riley said, summers and Fridays were the off-peak times. She said there are many people who continue to commute so much that a permit is more cost-effective.
Meanwhile, officials said the Fairfield metro station and Bridgeport train station, whose parking lots are overseen by the Connecticut Department of Transportation, still aren’t as busy as they were before the pandemic.
“Before the pandemic, most lots on the New Haven Line were considered full,” said Josh Morgan, the DOT’s communications manager. “Rider and parking occupancy rates have fluctuated during the pandemic, with changes reflecting teleworking and stay-at-home orders and other public health factors such as: B. the recent Omicron rise.”
Like other train stations, Morgan said, Fairfield Metro and Bridgeport don’t operate at 100 percent capacity on weekdays. However, parking space utilization continues to trend upwards, which is also reflected in more passengers who are now returning to rail service.
In Stratford, Mayor Laura Hoydick’s chief of staff, Michael Downes, said the city used to experience full lots, but during the heights of the pandemic, space utilization has reached less than 10 percent of total capacity. He said there was even one day in August 2020 when only two of the 473 spots were used.
Downes said lots are still not seeing even half capacity. According to the city, the highest rate this year was almost 42 percent on March 18.
“We’re still not seeing pre-pandemic numbers, we’re a long way from that, but you’ve definitely felt the needle move with that,” Downes said.
There used to be 300 to 400 people on the city’s waiting list, Downes said, but a high number of non-renewals during the pandemic has allowed the city to cycle through. He said the city offered renewal discounts during the pandemic so residents who didn’t want to lose their spot and be put back on the waitlist could better afford it. On two occasions they offered two free months for certain rooms to bring the price down, he said, noting people were reaching out to the city about it.
“They don’t want to give up their permit because they’re afraid of getting back on the waiting list, and they can be on the waiting list for a year or two,” Downes said.
In Wesport, Police Lieutenant Dave Wolf said it’s much easier to park at the city’s two train stations during the pandemic as very few people commute. He said that the number of parking spaces at the stations has increased significantly.
“We’re not at pre-pandemic levels, but we’re certainly moving in that direction,” he said, noting that there is no waiting list for parking in the lots and 3,750 permits have been issued for parking lots.
Rick Dunne, the executive director of the Naugatuck Valley Council of Governments, said estimating parking capacity in Ansonia and Derby can be difficult because parking in those lots is free.
“Suffice it to say that the Ansonia continues to be busy and full without having enough space for the station and while Derby has seen a noticeable decline during COVID we are seeing a dramatic increase in the number of cars parked each day,” he said.
Dunne said there was always a shortage of commuter parking, even before the pandemic, and it’s expensive even when it’s available.
“The state had to build more and more parking lots or private operators had to do it,” he said.
Referring to the Waterbury line, Dunne said officials had seen the smallest pandemic drop in ridership in Metro North of any part of the rail system – and ridership was coming back strong and fast.
“A strong indicator of rail demand is that highway rush hour traffic is back to where it was before the pandemic – so if we add train traffic we expect it to fill up quickly too,” he said. “Demand for additional service remains and we look forward to seven new trains this year, filling the gaps and making the route more convenient and attractive for commuters. We hope that within five years the line will support half-hour service during peak hours and one-hour service the rest of the day.”
Parking in Ansonia and Derby has always been free, Dunne said, but Derby car park was full before the pandemic and there isn’t much commuter parking in Ansonia. Anecdotally, he said, Ansonia hasn’t had overcapacity, even during COVID and Derby they fell about 50 per cent but are now climbing back towards full capacity.
“We expect more hybrid parkers to commute, but that doesn’t really relieve the need for parking because if you need a certain number of spaces for the peak day of the week, you need that many spaces,” he said. “It’s not that you need less space just because people don’t commute on Mondays or Fridays. You still need to create as many spaces as you need to accommodate all of the Wednesday commuters.”