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One Thursday evening in mid-September, Catherine Bauer hopped the RTD light-rail train from her receptionist job in a downtown communications-strategy firm. By 7:30 she was in the Broadway Marketplace lot, just south of Alameda and Broadway--but her car wasn't. "At first I thought it was stolen," she says. "I was just lucky that there was a cop there sitting in the parking lot." Bauer learned that her 1992 Nissan Stanza was being held a good ten miles away, in the Wyatt's Towing lot at I-70 and Quebec. She called her boyfriend for a ride and her dad for a loan to bail out her car--$100, cash. By the time she got home, it was 10:30.
Three nights later the same thing happened: Frustrated commuter; no car. Bauer says she could have understood why her car had been towed--twice--if she had parked near the sign in the Broadway Marketplace lot that bluntly states, "NO Light Rail Parking." But the signage in the area where she had parked was vague: "RTD Light Rail Users: Park in Designated Areas Only."
Consultant David Flake thought his spot was "designated," too, but his car and several others were also towed that day. Flake had been towed before and decided to eat the $100 fee. But by round two, "I was hot," he says. The car-napped Flake appealed to a police officer, who drove him, Bauer and another commuter to Wyatt's and got the towing company to release their cars at no charge. "The police officer said Wyatt's had done everything legally," Flake says, but he still felt deceived. "It's almost like Broadway Marketplace is saying sure, use our lot--then having a field day out there."
In a city where some of the most prized real estate is a free parking space, where to stow the car becomes a task of urban survival. Strangers on the light-rail train bond as they swap tales of personal towing horror--and trade the sense that they've been needlessly victimized. "It almost feels," says Bauer, "like someone is stealing something from you that's yours."
RTD's $120 million light-rail line shuttles thousands daily from I-25 and Broadway through Alameda Station and to points north. Since opening day in 1994, boardings (the number of people who get on and off the train any number of times during the day) have climbed steadily from 13,000 to more than 18,000 per weekday. The transit agency offers more than 1,000 parking spaces at its southernmost station, at I-25 and Broadway, and has increased the RTD spots at Alameda Station several times to its current total of 644. Broadway Marketplace has kicked in 177 more parking spaces in the center of its huge lot ringed by Sam's Club, Pep Boys, Beauty Smart, Office Max, Albertsons and others.
With this kind of goodwill, why isn't anybody happy? "We don't deal with anybody that's happy," says Floyd Samuel, manager of Wyatt's Towing. "Broadway Marketplace isn't happy. Light rail isn't happy. The people who get their cars towed aren't happy."
Only the commuters who enter the lot well before 7 a.m. can wear a smug smile to work. By 7:30, cars are popping into the entrance at an accelerating clip, like big cream-filled chocolates on Lucy Ricardo's conveyor belt. They drop neatly into seven rows in the middle of the lot--one, two, three, four, red Chevy, blue Saturn, gray Ford, yellow Bug--as freshly scrubbed commuters bubble out from their cars and scurry across the lot to the benches at Alameda Station.
But those who arrive after 7:45 are out of luck. Long before the first Wal-Mart semi rolls into the Sam's Club lot with an early-morning delivery, light rail's "designated spaces" have been claimed for the day.
"Since the inception of light rail, we have expanded parking seven times," mostly at Alameda Station, says RTD spokesman Scott Reed. "There seems to be an insatiable demand."
With the high cost of downtown parking spots, light rail's publicly subsidized fares ($1.25 during peak hours) look ever more tempting. An RTD survey of license plates reveals that 27 percent of parkers in the Broadway Marketplace light-rail spaces travel all the way from Jefferson and Arapahoe counties. Many of those people apparently are "passing two Park-n-Rides along the way. These are not dedicated mass-transit users," says RTD boardmember Alan Fleming, who has fielded complaints from recently towed commuters. Instead of taking a bus from their local neighborhoods or an outlying Park-n-Ride, drivers race for the few, precious spots at Broadway Marketplace, Fleming says. "They're trying to make this an RTD problem," he says. "This is not an RTD problem."
But some passengers on The Ride insist they're being taken for a ride. It's made at least one Broadway Marketplace merchant tired of the whole setup. Light-rail users don't stop in to make purchases after work, and they often leave litter in the parking lot, so Broadway Marketplace may cut out the RTD parking altogether, the merchant says. An official of Developers Diversified, the shopping center's management company, did not have time to confirm or deny that claim before hanging up twice on a reporter.
The Imperial Chinese Restaurant, whose private parking spots adjoin the Broadway Marketplace lot, moved to its location at 431 S. Broadway three years ago expressly to offer customers more space for parking. Ironically, today the restaurant has to politely chase away light-rail scofflaws, or it won't have enough room for its lunchtime crowd. "Lunchtime is very critical," explains manager Johnny Hsu. "People are on their lunch hour and want to get in and out quickly."