Parking at ever-growing SMCC a 'nightmare'

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Rideshare program, park-and-ride plan seek to alleviate crowded lots

SOUTH PORTLAND — Parking at the ever-growing Southern Maine Community College is tricky.

For the more than 7,000 students — the net total of five straight years of 10 percent enrollment increases — there are about 1,300 parking spots. Of course not all the students have cars, and they’re not all on campus at once.

But SMCC Security still handed out $65,120 worth of parking tickets last year. That’s 4,341 tickets in the nine-month school year.

Two new projects aim to ease the college’s parking woes.

One, an online rideshare program, would link students with similar commutes to one another so they can carpool. The other would study the feasibility of satellite parking off campus, where students could leave their cars and catch a ride to campus on public transit, easing the parking burden and congestion along Broadway.

SMCC recently announced a partnership with GO MAINE, a website that links Mainers with similar commutes so they can share rides, save gas money and decrease their carbon footprints.

The partnership with the community college is a first-of-its-kind arrangement, in which every student will be signed up for a rideshare program operated by GO MAINE. Students would input their route and schedule and be linked with students whose trips overlap theirs. Parking officials at SMCC said they may even designate some prime parking spaces on campus as carpool-only spots.

“It’s as simple as ‘give a ride, get a ride,'” said Carey Kish, GO MAINE’s program manager. Students will be able to sign up for the service starting Aug. 22.

Katherine Drew, a 24-year-old student studying English at SMCC, said she drives an hour to class from her home in Lewiston. She said she’s lucky to have access to faculty parking spots, because she works for the billing and athletic departments. Without access to her faculty spot, parking would be a “nightmare,” she said.

Drew said that while there are often spots available in more remote locales, like the municipal lot at Bug Light Park, which is open to SMCC students, she would still rather find a spot closer to her classes. The reason? The massive load she has to lug around campus.

“The thing is, the average student is carrying a lot,” she said. “I’m not just carrying one class worth of books. I’m carrying for three classes, plus a laptop.”

In the last six years, the college has added about 300 parking spaces, according to Director of Administration Scott Beatty, who oversees parking. Those spaces include Parking Lot B, the most recently constructed lot, built three years ago.

Students also ride both the South Portland and Portland bus lines for free, thanks to a reimbursement from the school. About 235 students ride the bus per day, Beatty said, which alleviates the need for a whole parking lot.

For those who drive, more parking is available in remote lots, such as the one at Bug Light Park or one leased to the school at the end of Benjamin Pickett Street. But Beatty said students are hesitant to use them.

“Everyone’s tendency is to park as close as they can to wherever they’re going,” he said. “Some students park on the grass, others double park. They keep security busy.”

Beatty said parking issues are worst in the first three to five weeks of classes, when students are visiting the financial aid office, buying their books and adjusting their class schedules. As the year goes on, he said Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays are the worst days because so many students try to take Monday and Friday off. 

Because of that, the school has tried to shift schedules to encourage Monday and Friday classes. Beatty said the school has to find those sort of ingenious ways to solve the parking problem because there’s no room to add more parking spaces. Students often ask him why the school doesn’t just build a parking garage. He tells them that when you factor in all the costs associated with planning and construction, parking garages cost about $20,000 per space.

“That will likely never be in a community college’s budget,” he said. “So we’re more or less maxed out on available parking on campus, unless we tear down a building,” he said.

But South Portland Planning Director Tex Haeuser has started thinking of off-campus solutions.

Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation System, or PACTS, was expected to have heard an application Thursday from the City of South Portland for funds to study potentials for setting up remote parking lots along transit lines so students could park off campus and ride buses to school.

Though the step is preliminary, Haeuser said the plan would not only help address parking at SMCC, but would cut down on the traffic on Broadway by cutting the number of cars on the busy arterial.

A 2007 traffic study found that an average of 23,410 vehicles passed the intersection of Ocean Street on Broadway. Closer to SMCC, the number trickled down to 8,440. Tex said it’s a pain for residents.

“I hear a lot of people talk about increase in traffic on Broadway and difficulties associated with it, mainly having to do with getting out of side streets,” Haeuser said.

The idea would be for these park-and-rides to be near enough to the college to be convenient, but Haeuser said it’s not out of the question that they could be in Portland.

Drew, the SMCC English student, said students would likely go for the carpooling through GO MAINE, but didn’t think students would buy into the park-and-ride option.

“I don’t think people would use satellite parking,” she said. “People are lazy.”

Beatty echoed that sentiment: “Lots of students will circle a lot for 15 minutes instead of just parking at Bug Light and walking, which would take less time.”

The silver lining, Beatty said, is that the parking problems at SMCC are a result of increased demands at the college. He said that the bad economy has pushed more people back into higher education. There are more students than ever at the college.

“In that light, the good news is we’ve got a parking problem,” he said. “The bad news is, we’ve got a parking problem.”

Mario Moretto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or Follow Mario on Twitter: @riocarmine.