Higher Ed Parking Funded By Outdated Procedures

By Barbara Chance, PhD

Recently our staff members have worked with several institutions (universities and medical centers) where transportation issues have turned out to be as important as parking ones. In each case, those who manage parking did not intend to become transportation experts or operators, but necessity is the mother of adaptation as well as invention!

Two Examples:
A small university favors the construction of proximate garages over a strategy for peripheral parking and shuttle systems, largely to continue providing convenience parking for its faculty and staff. Funding is available for the garages, but it turns out that "proximate" is in the eye of the beholder. The expectation is arising for shuttle service from garages located within three to four blocks of most of the campus. Now they will have a more complex parking system to manage, as well as a more substantial shuttle contract with greater service expectations. Because parking generates very little revenue and the shuttle will serve primarily faculty and staff, the costs will not be recovered by the parking and transportation system.
A large university with thousands of peripheral parking spaces began a small shuttle system as part of a set of services related to campus construction and parking displacement. The cost was initially part of the construction agreement. A new Master Plan calls for buildings or green space to displace central surface parking lots (a familiar pattern), thus increasing the use of the peripheral parking and likely generating more interest in the shuttle system. In the planning for future services, the University must consider funding the construction of one or more garages to serve visitors and special event centers, improvements to existing surface parking lots, and now an expanded shuttle system. There is neither the financial plan or the administrative structure to manage a combined parking and transportation system.
Most institutions received the requirement from regents, trustees, boards or legislatures to make parking self-sufficient back when surface lots cost less than $1,000 per space, security equipment was nowhere to be seen, and roadway lighting was considered more than sufficient for parking areas. Fast-forward to a different era when surface lots became building sites, security on campuses became very important, and aesthetics of support areas came under scrutiny.
The requirement to make parking financially self-sufficient continued, even though the entire set of circumstances surrounding this requirement had changed. In these years, we worked with universities and medical centers struggling to pay for the change of relatively inexpensive surface parking spaces to quite expensive parking garages and/or landscaped, well lighted, and secure surface parking lots.
Fast-forward again to the present time, and the conditions have gotten more complex. Now, in addition to paying for better parking lots and garages, parking departments are often searching for funding for transportation as well. Even major universities with long-standing parking and transportation divisions must cope with rising demands for transportation service occurring while both operating costs (fuel and labor) and capital expenditures (buses, maintenance and repair facilities) increase dramatically.
A few universities had the foresight to establish transportation fees early, but many of those that did not anticipate needing a transportation system are now in a position where university governance will not allow the addition of a student fee of this type. Student fees have been increasing to support academic missions, fund new facilities, and upgrade computer systems. Compared to these priorities, a transportation fee often does not even warrant discussion. So the financial burden often comes back to the parking system. Not only is it often controversial to fund transportation from parking fees, it also sometimes becomes totally impractical due to the significant cost of transportation services and the limits that must be placed on parking fees in order to be reasonable in comparison to other costs.
When ZZ Top asked for "mercy", he might have been doing it for the institutional managers that are trying to make the parking and transportation puzzle work at their institutions. Those who make the decisions that affect these managers often do not understand the magnitude of the changes that have occurred since original requirements were promulgated. They typically do not have an appreciation for the complexity of running systems that are desired to be "service oriented" but have to do this on an inadequate budget based on fees that are "arm-wrestled" over on an annual basis.
Perhaps it is time to seriously re-think funding approaches and strategies for parking and transportation - two of the more important infrastructure elements on any substantial campus.

Barbara Chance, PhD, is President of Chance Management Advisors.
She can be reached at

Article Abstract from September, 2006

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