NJ Transit moves forward in effort to privatize parking lots

In a state where three-quarters of its residents live within five miles of a transit station and 10 percent of the work force travels by public transit the highest statewide rate in America the NJ Transit station parking lots could be paved with gold.
NJ 9100138-large.jpgThe cash-strapped transit agency will find out for sure in the coming months.

Hoping to privatize its parking lots to provide an additional source of operating budget revenue, NJ Transit has entered the next phase of a project to lease more than 37,000 parking spaces to a private firm for the next three to five decades.

The parking concession program, SPACES System Parking Amenity and Capacity Enhancement Strategy represents NJ Transits best opportunity to close a $100 million budget gap, agency Executive Director Jim Weinstein said.

On Friday, NJ Transit whittled a list of 10 candidates, down to seven qualified concessionaires. The seven will bid in March for the right to operate and maintain NJ Transit parking facilities at 81 stations. The final list of sites will likely change, with some dropping out and others being added.

Lots that are free are likely to start charging, and overcrowded lots that have waiting lists will likely get new parking decks.

The teams that are finalists to take over the parking: KKR/ECI Investment Advisors/Ampco Parking Systems; Morgan Stanley/Central Parking System; Carlyle Infrastructure Partners/Nexus Parking Systems; MacQuarie Capital/Standard Parking/TimHaahs; JP Morgan/LAZ Parking; Cintra; and Edison.

Each concessionaire has built, on schedule and within budget, at least three parking decks containing 500 or more spaces each.

"NJ Transit is essentially leasing out its front door the parking lots for its transit stations," said Matthew Stanton, a partner with the MBI GluckShaw public affairs firm in Trenton and former chief of staff of NJ Transit.

"I am confident that Executive Director Weinstein will select the team that clearly demonstrates the delicate balance needed between revenue, control over parking fees, management of the lots and quality customer service."

Weinstein said managing parking spaces is not the forte of the transit agency and that there are companies specializing in it that can run the lots better.

"Were looking for a model where we can improve and we can standardize parking across our system," he said. "Hopefully, what well do is get a private sector partner who will be able to make the improvements to upgrade technology so that people arent putting dollar bills in slots."

The transaction is expected to close by the finish of the fiscal year that ends on June 30. The takeover of the complete inventory of parking sites will likely be phased in.

The proposal includes parking at a large swath of stations. It ranges from a free lot at Brick, where only about a third of the 347 parking spaces are used, to Metropark in Woodbridge, where nearly all of the 3,718 parking spaces are used and NJ Transit takes in more than $5 million a year.

The majority of the affected lots in the proposal are in Bergen County (13 lots), Essex County (10) and Monmouth County (9).

With the state Transportation Trust Fund about to go broke and federal dollars becoming harder to get, NJ Transit has been looking to wring more cash out of its properties and parking spaces.

Jay Corbalis, policy analyst with New Jersey Future, a nonprofit organization in Trenton that promotes sustainable land use, wonders whether NJ Transit is trading millions of dollars in future revenues for a short-term budget fix.

He also questions whether privatization would hamper the development of communities built around transportation hubs which make it convenient to get around without a car and why transit riders are being assessed user fees while people who use the roads and bridges are not.

"By privatizing parking facilities, this proposal will have the effect of further raising costs for many NJ Transit riders," Corbalis said. "If New Jersey wants to move toward a user fee-based system to pay for transportation, it should apply the same approach to roads and bridges as it does for mass transit."

Weinstein said the SPACES program will help transit-oriented development and improve a parking system that, in some instances, has thousands of people on waiting lists for spaces.

"A conductor on the Dinky (shuttle train) in Princeton tells me about parking passes being passed down three generations and I think that is replicated across the state," he said. "Were looking for a way to make it better. Were looking for a way to make sure that the resources are there to make the improvements."
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