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Parking changes likely

Market forces are on display each school day in the crowded blocks around campus.

In the northwest corner of MSUM, there are patches of empty asphalt where old houses once stood. Like almost all parking on the 10-block wide campus, those spots require a pass that costs at least $55 per semester. Instead of paying, many faculty, staff and students opt to compete for the scarce free spots on adjacent streets.

Parking problems are “both a supply and demand issue,” said consultant John Shardlow, who presented a report, aimed at improving “safety, enforcement, convenience and efficiency,” to the Moorhead City Council Monday night. In MSUM’s case, Shardlow said, there’s “ample supply, but it’s just not used.”

The shaded area is where a consultant recommends parking time limits.

For decades, the city has been balancing near-campus residents’ concerns about heavy traffic and out-of-control parking – much of it illegal – around their properties with those of faculty, staff and students who habitually park in those spots. Despite periodic attempts, a long-term solution has proved elusive for the college-dominated area around MSUM and Concordia – between Fourth and 16th avenues and between Third and 17th streets.

“The city hasn’t done anything quite honestly,” said MSUM alumnus Jeff Werre, 53, a lifelong resident of his home three blocks south of campus. “As residents, we feel the city council cares more about the colleges than people that live around the colleges.” But as one of a handful of the approximately 1,600 residents the city invited to Monday’s meeting who showed up, Werre added he thinks the city and MSUM are finally ready to act.

“For once, we have a college president who cares,” Werre said. “(President Edna Szymanski is) the first one to really care about the surrounding neighborhoods.”

Campus area council member Mark Altenburg said that after more than 20 years of off-and-on discussion, “we finally have an administration willing to work with us.”

The council took no normal formal action Monday, but it directed city staff to craft a plan to implement many of the recommendations, preferably at low or no cost. The ideas include stricter parking patrols, a cooperative enforcement arrangement with MSUM, increased transit promotion, a new system for snow removal, painted lines for street parking to limit wasted space and updated parking signage. A second phase calls for creating time limits for street parking in certain areas.

The council members who spoke advocated completing the first round of changes over this summer.  That’s better, they said, than letting the nearly $30,000 report, which included parking data around campus, online feedback and input from nine “stakeholder meetings,” to become “another study to sit on the shelf,” as Shardlow put it.

City manager Mike Redlinger said he would report back to the council with firm proposals and funding options, “as soon as possible.” Since council members want to make changes before students return in the fall “we’ll have to keep moving on a pretty swift schedule,” Redlinger said.

In an April 4 letter to city officials that summarized the consultant’s findings, Shardlow repeated a point he had made repeatedly throughout this process. “Moorhead is a ‘company town,’” he wrote, “and the business that provides the economic engine that supports the community is education … no one should choose to solve the parking problems at the expense of the vitality and prosperity of these institutions.”

For its part, MSUM is ready to start enforcing parking rules on streets near the university – a job police volunteers now ordinarily perform on an irregular basis – if it can come up with a revenue sharing agreement with the city, public safety director Greg Lemke said.

“We’re willing to assist the city with (enforcement),” Lemke said. “I think it’s something that can be done pretty quickly.”

Council member Heidi Durand, who also represents MSUM and the surrounding neighborhoods, said enforcing current parking laws is a must, and so is continued collaboration with MSUM – “just being a good partner, encouraging them to get creative and supporting those solutions that they make.”

One possibility is to fix the disparity between the lower city parking fines and those on campus. It’s up to the city to raise its rates to match MSUM’s, Lemke said, because parking fine dollars are necessary for a variety of purposes. For instance, the fund will provide most of the money for a half-million dollar project this summer that will level three homes along 11th Street for about 125 new parking spaces.

Even though there’s currently unused spaces, MSUM is preparing for enrollment growth and higher demand for spaces, vice president for finance and administration Jan Mahoney said.

Besides the shorter-term measures of creating consistency in parking enforcement and fines, the university administration and student senate are looking into a per-credit system to boost on-campus parking. The plan, used at some MnSCU institutions, would provide parking for all students (likely with an opt-out option for those without vehicles) paid for with a campus-wide student fee.

“I believe it would take some stress off the neighborhood parking,” Mahoney said.

Student senate president Kimberly Ehrlich said having that idea “might not be feasible for this campus,” because the parking surplus could quickly turn into a deficit.

Monday night, council members and city staff said promoting education on campuses about transit options might be another way to allay the parking woes.

Transit “can’t serve every need,” said Lisa Vatnsdal, neighborhood services manager. “But I bet it can serve some more needs.”

Unlike most students, Ehrlich commutes to MSUM via MAT bus. She and Mahoney said responses to a question about transit interest on this week’s campus elections ballot would help leaders decide whether to offer fee-supported free or subsidized bus passes for students – or no services at all.

Another longer-term potential change to city parking policy, the consultant report’s recommendation for time-limited zones, would also affect MSUM, where many, mainly faculty and staff, arrive early and get the prime spots for a whole day, the report concluded.

Besides disrupting some faculty and staff member’s routines, those limits might have a negative impact on students, Ehrlich said.

“People will be more inclined to get in their cars and go home after class,” she said. “And we already have a issue with involvement on campus.”

Ehrlich said she appreciates the concerns of nearby residents and appreciates the continuous student involvement throughout the parking review process, she just hopes that the city takes student input into account when making final decisions.

With the council poised to act later this spring, Durand and Altenburg invite students, faculty and staff to share their views about parking.

“If students want to be involved, they need to start sending us emails and letters now,” Altenburg said. “The council’s not dinking around.”

• To see the parking consultant’s report go to www.ci.moorhead.mn.us/city_hall/agendaMinutesCouncil.asp then click on the April 16 agenda.

• Reach council member Mark Altenburg at
mark.altenburg@cityofmoorhead.com or 218.299.5547

• Reach council member Heidi Durand at
heidi.durand@cityofmoorhead.com or 218.443.5742

BY BRYCE HAUGEN
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