Getting a Norwalk train parking permit used to take years. Now the city is struggling to sell them

NORWALK — Commuters sometimes had to wait years to snag a parking permit at one of Norwalk’s two Metro-North train stations, but now the city is struggling to sell them due to low ridership brought on by the pandemic.

Previously, the waitlist to get a monthly parking pass for the East and South Norwalk train station lots was upward of two years, Director of Transportation, Mobility and Parking Jim Travers said.

But with the pandemic and fewer people traveling to New York City, Metro-North ridership dropped significantly. Along with the drop in train use, the sales of parking permits also faltered.

“Pre-pandemic, there was a two-year waitlist for permits at the SoNo railroad,” Travers said. “People got used to the fact that they weren’t available.”

Between Norwalk’s two train stations, a total of 750 parking passes are offered. As of Friday, there were still 277 available, according to Travers.

As the state recovered from the pandemic, Metro-North ridership in Norwalk returned to 51% of pre-pandemic use, but only 473 monthly parking passes were sold.

“We do know enough from working with the parking authority, we’ve never not had a waitlist at the SoNo train station before,” Travers said. “This is the first time seeing the opportunity for people to get in.”

Travers said the reduced revenue is not significant enough to be felt by the city, and he doesn’t expect to get to that point.

“The pandemic has lasted longer than any of us could really desire, but I think there it is, the unknown question. That is what everyone in transportation and business is really trying to figure out,” Travers said. “We have been through the pandemic, are very good at managing what the revenue is to matching expenses. We cut expenses down to the degree we can to manage it, but I firmly believe it’s going to come back.”

While Travers is confident ridership will return to pre-pandemic levels, he understands the possibility of decreased parking use becoming permanent.

“How do we run an effective rail system at 50% ridership? What do we do with a parking structure if no one’s parking in it?” he said. “We would have to reimagine its use, but I don’t think we’re there.”

In the meantime, the city has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars to improve the stations while parking garage use is low. Earlier this year, the city designated more than $500,000 to repainting, recaulking, plugging leaks and changing aging equipment, among other things.

Some waitlisted residents opted not to purchase a permit as they were still unsure whether they would need the pass and when they were returning to the office, Travers said.

For those still only using the train a few times a week, the use of a parking permit would still outweigh the cost of paying daily, he added.

A spot in the daily lot costs $12 a day, while the monthly permit costs $99. Taking the train twice a week, or eight days per month, adds up to $96.

To increase parking permit purchases, Assistant Parking Director James Emery spent the past week contacting Norwalkers previously on the waitlist to see if they were aware and interested in purchasing a pass.

Emery began the project by identifying riders who used the parking garage two to three times a week, but paid per day rather than with a pass.

“We identified, reached out and sold five in one day just because they didn’t know they were available,” Emery said. “It wasn’t the biggest jump we saw when we did the outreach program, but it was enough to say this is something.”

While parking pass purchases was an ongoing issue, it wasn’t a priority until train ridership increased and COVID-19 cases continued to decrease.

“We were monitoring all year the ratio of ridership to permits sold, but we started to notice the daily commuter lot really started to fill up and outpace the ratio of growth we were seeing in other areas, which made us wonder why the daily lot was outpacing growth of other areas,” Emery said. “That’s when we started to dig in and take a look at numbers to do some outreach.”

As part of the outreach program, Emery plans to continue calling people on the waitlist and create a pop-up ad on the Norwalk parking authority website.

abigail.brone@hearstmediact.com