A Complex Problem
Cars outvote everybody at the statehouse
July 5, 1979
Apart from the new state library, the most monumental building erected in decades in the complex is a parking garage. Garages are ugly, and underground garages too costly to build, so the state makes do with poorly paved and ill-landscaped asphalt parking lots, so that the complex looks like a very poorly managed shopping mall. The apparent priority to put everyone's car by the door is baffling; perhaps it's written into public employee union contracts.
NOTE: Originally, the piece was titled “Parking at the statehouse: A complex problem.”
I went to a parking lot opening last week. The invitation—a press release really—from the state's Capital Development Board promised there would be a ribbon-cutting at 11:30 a.m. to "celebrate" (the CDB's word) the opening of what the release said was "Springfield's first constituent parking lot."
The lot sits immediately to the south of the Stratton Building in the state's Capitol Complex in downtown Springfield. It is reserved for visitors to the complex, which a pleasant young woman from the CDB explained is why it's called a constituent parking lot. Her remarks left me momentarily nonplussed. The county building. for example, has parking for the public, so the Stratton Building project is not Springfield's first constituent parking lot, even if you don't count the hitching posts that used to stand around the Old Capitol square before the state moved into the present Statehouse. Besides, I thought, constituents and taxpayers mean pretty much the same thing, and that means that all the parking lots in the complex are constituent parking lots. Doesn't it?
I quickly jumped off that bumpy train of thought; I was at the parking lot to have fun. The CDB had set up a row of chairs near the College Street entrance to the lot and equipped them with a lectern and a PA system. An eminently cuttable red, white and blue ribbon dangled from stanchions. The Illinois National Guard Ceremonial Militia—the entertainment on the bill—was unfurling its flags and looking uncomfortable in its dark blue Civil War tunics, since the temperature already was well into the eighties. Nearby, CDB staffers were busy ladling out lemonade to thirsty reporters and the dignitaries in attendance, including Springfield's Mayor Mike Houston, CDB director Don Glickman and a gaggle of legislators.
Being a journalist by temperament as well as profession, I pondered the significance of the occasion while we all stood around waiting for the show to start. Originally the space wasn't intended to be a parking lot at all. Architects envisioned a mall that would connect the Stratton Building with a second office building that eventually will be built to the south. When that idea was announced it prompted remarks from many veteran observers of state government having to do with ice cubes and hell, and there was no surprise when it was later announced that these 60,000 square feet at the front door of the state's largest office building would become not a park but a parking lot.
The final product cost $430.000, provides space for 150 vehicles, including thirteen motorcycles and eight spaces for what the CDB calls "handicapped parking." At first the Legislative Space Needs Commission was going to let the public use only some of the spaces (one account said ninety, another seventy), with the rest to be given away to the usual bunch. The LSNC changed its mind, probably when it was reminded that hell hath no fury like a parker scorned, especially if that parker is a voter.
And voters have been getting pretty miffed about parking lately. Until last week there was not a single parking space reserved for use by the gawkers, gripers, special pleaders, and license plate buyers who daily descend on the complex. They must fend for themselves, which in the cutthroat world of Statehouse parking is like sending little boys into battle.
Parking has been a problem in the complex since the state foolishly began paying its people enough that they could afford to buy cars. Surveys commissioned over the last couple of years by the CDB reveal that some 90 percent of complex employees get to work by car and that this habit results in some 4,000 cars being driven into the complex every working day, with cars of tourists, visitors, and others adding to the crush. In spite of this the state had only 1,500 parking spaces on hand as recently as 1977, and it had that number only because it had consented to the devastation of dozens of lovely houses to the north of the complex for parking lots which have been a blight on the city and the reputation of the state ever since.
State workers unlucky enough not to have a reserved space in a state lot must either park on city streets (taking spaces from the people who live in the neighborhoods near the complex) or they buy space in one of the dozens of private lots (generally unpaved and unscreened) that have sprung up around the complex.
I recalled that it was ease this pressure for parking space that the General Assembly okayed spending $7.8 million to build the 790-car underground garage beneath the new constituent parking lot. The cost for the underground garage came to something like $10,000 per space. But the real problem isn't a shortage of parking spaces but an excess of cars. CDB surveys suggest that 70 percent of state workers commute alone. A couple of years ago the CDB reportedly toyed with the idea of a van pooling plan by which commuters would be given free use of state-supplied vans in return for carting a certain number of fellow commuters to work, but the plan apparently went nowhere. A year ago the CDB's Glickman suggested that drivers who insisted on making solitary commutes be slapped with punitive $40-a-month parking fees, but that idea got the bird from faithful servants of the state who evidently think they see quite enough of each other at the office and thus regard any suggestion that they fraternize while driving to and from as being above and beyond the call.
The folks over at the Institute of Natural Resources may be on to something, however. They're circulating forms on which interested employees of the forty-odd agencies in the governor's satrapy are to list their names and when and by what routes they travel to work. These little secrets are to be fed into a Department of Transportation computer, which will repay the favor by matching them up with potential car poolers. The assumption behind the program, you see, is that there are hundreds of people who are closet car poolers who only need to meet someone else of similar bent to turn into pooling fools—sort of like swap clubs.
Even if the program trims solitary commuting by only ten percent it will mean 500 cars a day that won't have to be crammed into the complex, which is like bulding three new constituent parking lots. If it works (and they'll know by the middle of next month how many will have signed up) the next step is to get other state agencies involved and maybe even other governments and private businesses located downtown. As Donovan used to say, it could be the very next craze. I was beginning to compose a letter to the editor on the subject when I noticed a knot of people gathered at the lot entrance. By the time I walked over to where they were, they had broken up. It was over! The legislators bustled back toward the Statehouse and the Ceremonial Militia rolled up its flags and headed home without having marched a step.
There were no speeches, no nothing. I left Mayor Houston and director Glickman standing and chatting almost forlornly in the middle of an empty 150-car parking lot with lemonade in their hands. That's the last time I'll go to any party the Capital Development Board invites me to. □