Campus officials in La Crosse are concerned about singling out students going into the La Crosse Common Council’s discussion of whether to ban a pay-by-phone parking zone on the streets immediately adjacent to University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and Western Technical College.
UW-L Chancellor Joe Gow and Western Technical College President Roger Stanford both objected to the notion of charging people to park near their campuses, but not in other areas of the city, during interviews this week.
“I hate to say it, but it’s a discriminatory plan because it charges for parking on some streets but not others,” Gow said.
The La Crosse Board of Public Works, which governs the city’s parking resources, approved the zones Sept. 17. The pilot program would require drivers pay $1 an hour to park on select streets around UW-L and Western. Under the policy, they will be required to pay by phone, either using a mobile app called Passport Parking or calling 1-800-789-7593.
After students at both colleges objected, council member Justice Weaver introduced a resolution to prohibit the pay-by-phone program from going into effect. The resolution will go before the La Crosse Common Council at 6 p.m. Thursday at La Crosse City Hall.
Stanford acknowledged that the city has the right to manage its parking resources as officials see fit, but said he’s struggled with the equity of the proposal.
“These are the folks who are the future workforce. These are folks who we are trying to recruit and keep in our community. Western trains people to stay here, that’s what we do,” Stanford said.
Paying $1 per hour would be a hardship for Western students — many of whom simply don’t have that extra cash, he said.
“I think if you had a quarter an hour, it’d be more palatable than a dollar an hour,” Stanford said.
Back in September when the pay-by-phone area was proposed, La Crosse Police Department Assistant Chief Rob Abraham, who oversees the parking utility, said the areas around the campus were chosen because students were more likely to be comfortable using a mobile app, rather than a pay station, which can cost about $10,000 apiece.
“We feel that the people who park in those areas are pretty savvy and will be able to do that,” he had said.
The program was meant to test whether pay-by-phone would work in La Crosse, and look at ways to better manage city parking, including on-street spaces.
La Crosse Mayor Tim Kabat said in September that the notion of free and unlimited on-street parking, especially in areas with a strong commuter presence, could be going away.
“I think it’s a matter of ‘when’ and not ‘if.’ With all the changes that we’re doing on parking, what we hear from many folks is that we should be charging for parking and make the cost of that parking born by the people who are using that parking,” Kabat told the Board of Public Works while it discussed the program.
The fees were based off of UW-L’s hourly parking, which is set at $1 per hour.
Gow acknowledged that the university charges for on-street parking, including the streets the city vacated and gave up to the university a few years ago. At the university, everyone but a few employees pay for parking, whereas the city’s proposal offered permits to residents.
“We charge everybody who wants to park on campus. The issue with the city’s plan is that it would only charge some people to park and not others,” Gow said.
Both Gow and Stanford raised concerns that the charge would push students and staff into the neighboring streets — something they already field complaints about.
“If you’re only charging for parking on the streets adjacent to the campus, my sense is that people would park maybe a block away and that’s going to create more congestion in the neighborhoods,” Gow said.
The students and staff on campus feel singled-out, they said.
“If this would be a citywide piece, I really wouldn’t have a lot to argue about because I struggle to balance a budget myself and I understand why they might do it,” Stanford said.
Stanford disagreed with city officials who said Western should do more to encourage students to park in its ramp, particularly those who noted times when the top floor was mostly empty of cars. Western’s president likened the parking situation to Valley View Mall, where the parking lots are packed from November through February and open throughout the spring and summer.
“No one questions that because we know that there are just peaks and valleys when it comes to parking. Schools have peaks and valleys. We have peaks and valleys at the beginning of the term. We have peaks and valleys at certain times of the day,” Stanford said.
The college charges $100 per year for parking permits and $80 per year for permits specifically limited to the ramp. The ramp also serves as primary parking for events at the Lunda Center, which can draw hundreds of participants.
“I don’t think we’d be providing a service to our students if every day they had to drive around and around and around to find a spot. If they have a parking pass, they can find a spot in our lot right now, and that’s what we want,” Stanford said.
Western is also planning for parking to get tighter in the next five years as it focuses on a 2025 plan to improve student retention and graduation rates.
“Right now, parking is huge for us because we have a five-year concentrated effort on figuring out how to keep students and that is going to impact our parking,” Stanford said.
UW-L officials acknowledged that the parking situation is tight on their campus, with UW-L parking director Victor Hill saying, “If you see an open space, that doesn’t mean it’s not spoken for.”
The university is always analyzing and adapting its parking strategies, selling more permits than there are spaces in the commuter lots, in a process known as overselling. The process is based on size and typical occupancy, he said.
“The stadium lot has almost 200 spaces and we’ve oversold that by about 130 percent. I think it’s at 129, right now. The reason for that is all based on turnover,” Hill said.
Each of the commuter lots also are available for hourly parking and occupancy varies widely based on the time of day.
Gow said, “We’re challenged because we don’t have enough parking for our people and we have a waiting list that has 200 students on it. We wish we had more parking, but we don’t, and it’s hard to find more space.”
Both schools discourage single-occupancy vehicles where possible, utilizing tools from free bus passes to carpooling parking spots to making campuses as bike-friendly as possible.
“We don’t want a student to buy a permit if they’re going to be able to figure out, whether they live on campus or off, a way to get to campus in a meaningful way, whether it’s by biking, walking, whatever, knowing that we are seasonal and sometimes those aren’t as practical,” Hill said.
The cost of permits is also part of the conversation as they talk about the sustainability issues surrounding parking and cars, and whether it’s worth it to bring a car to campus, he said.
“They have to have that conversation because there’s a cost involved, too,” Hill said.