Wednesday, May 14, 2008

As MARC ridership grows, so do the parking lot woes

Lots at Germantown MARC station fill up fast

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MARC rail commuters in Germantown are facing more competition for limited parking spaces around the depot as rising gasoline prices and a growing town center increase the customer base for passenger train service, government planners, business leaders and commuters say.

The Maryland Transit Administration plans to add a parking garage at the station, but it’s not scheduled for completion until 2015.

‘‘We know that it’s kind of been on the cusp and recently I assumed it’s been getting to the point where there’s going to be no room at the inn,” said Marilyn Balcombe, president and CEO of the Gaithersburg-Germantown Chamber of Commerce.

Planners with several county agencies and local businesses have begun meeting on the issue. Jewru Bandeh assistant director of the Upcountry Regional Services Center, called the search for solutions ‘‘complex and challenging.”

‘‘We don’t have anything we can point to. We don’t want to give any false impressions or expectations,” Bandeh said.

Commuters interviewed on the train platform said the parking lots above the depot and railroad tracks are usually full or near capacity by the time the last train heads toward Washington at 8:15 a.m.

The combined lots around the depot offer 648 free spaces to commuters, but the depot averages 750 boardings on weekdays, according to Cheron Wicker, a spokeswoman for MARC, which administers the commuter service operated by the CSX railroad.

The cozy depot, which was rebuilt after a fire in 1979, stands amid buildings and streets that form Germantown’s historic district. Commuters enter the two county-owned upper parking lots from Germantown Road. The depot comes into view as they leave the parking lots and walk across a viaduct above the railroad tracks on their way to the platform.

On Thursday morning, there was still plenty of parking as of 7:45 a.m., but a steady stream of cars had filled most of the spaces in a half hour. Several of those interviewed said fewer people ride the train on Friday, but Mondays through Thursdays have grown increasingly crowded.

‘‘If you come in late, at 7:45 or 8:15, you probably won’t find a spot,” said Ted Lin of Germantown as he waited on the platform for a train.

Kevin O’Neill of Germantown said the parking shortage occasionally forced him to park illegally outside the lot.

‘‘If it gets a little worse, I’m going to consider taking an earlier train,” he said.

Lin, O’Neill and others said they have noticed more people riding the train, a trend they attributed to the increase in gasoline prices, the booming upcounty population and deterioration in Metro services.

‘‘There are many times I get on this train, it’s standing room only. Five years ago, you got a seat,” said Ann Vargas of Germantown.

Vargas said she has noticed builders of new housing developments touting accessibility to the MARC system in their advertising, an enticement she believes has contributed to a surge in ridership.

‘‘The price of gas is going up and so many people are coming to this area and you don’t have the infrastructure to support it,” Lin said.

A notice in the window of the depot from MARC states that ‘‘parking at MARC lots across the system is at a record high” and issues a plea for commuters to consider car pooling, kiss and ride arrangements or other alternatives. But the notice also specifically notes that adequate parking remains at two depots – Barnesville and Germantown.

Balcombe said parking at the depot has been ‘‘borderline” for some time and, ‘‘gas prices may have pushed it over a bit.” Without improvements, the situation will only grow worse as people travel to Germantown to reach jobs at new businesses that are projected to open in the next few years, she said.

‘‘With more density, more people will be getting off in Germantown instead of starting their journey in Germantown,” she said.