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Lots of Bad Luck

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."

Hsu has witnessed the Big Squeeze firsthand: When cars were towed on the east side of the lot, all-day parkers rolled to the west--until those merchants complained. Broadway Marketplace ordered aggressive towing on that part of the lot, so parking violators edged back east. "The shopping center has been very tolerant until recently," says Hsu, "and they just said enough's enough."

In March, Broadway Marketplace declared "zero tolerance" for undesignated parkers and plastered light-rail users' cars with fliers announcing its strict towing policy, says RTD's Reed. The official crackdown began on April 15--as good a day as any to be a grouch.

Samuel of Wyatt's Towing admits that the $100 towing fee is steep but says it's in line with regulations and offsets the company's losses from hauling and storing abandoned vehicles that yield little profit. And he denies any towing-fee "kickback" to Broadway Marketplace. An arrangement like that, he says, is illegal and could cost him his business.

"Broadway Marketplace has spent thousands of dollars on signs instructing people where to park and where not to park, and it doesn't help," says the good-humored Samuel, who turns the stereotype of a bloodthirsty, teeth-bearing tow-truck operator on its head. "There's more signs in that parking lot than in the entire state of Colorado."

Samuel has released several cars free of charge after drivers claimed they'd parked in a Broadway Marketplace space marked by a faded white line (actually a scuff mark from one of Wyatt's trucks). On a daily basis, he and his staff encounter all kinds: the penitents, the risk-takers, the verbally abusive. "There are people who've been towed three, four times," Samuel says. "These are folks who should know better--office workers, students. Like one young fellow: I asked him why he kept paying all those tickets, and he said, 'I just give 'em to my dad.' I'd think his father would say, 'Hey, I'm sending you to school to learn to read and write!'"

Back in the lot, RTD has posted a friendly fellow in an official white shirt, driving an official white truck, whose job is to zip around "undesignated" turf and warn light-rail users who are about to break the rules. He offers chatty suggestions on what time to arrive in the morning to secure a spot, where to safely park on neighborhood streets, and so on. Then he's quickly off again, to rescue the driver of a neon-green Sidekick jeep from the costly woes of a tow.

While daily headlines focus on another transit dispute (the cost of security at the Park-n-Ride lot at Stapleton and RTD's threat to halt its bus service between there and DIA), calls from distraught Alameda commuters are on the decline, reports police sergeant David Knoth of District 4, which includes Broadway Marketplace. But Samuel says he could keep 100 trucks busy in the lot if he didn't have so many other customers to service around town.

Reed notes that 1,915 spaces will be added along the Southwest Corridor when RTD's 8.7-mile light-rail extension to Littleton is opened in July 2000. Another new parking structure at I-25 and Broadway will add 400 to 450 spaces by early 2000; about 100 spaces that exist now at I-25 and Broadway, however, will be put out of commission to make way for that construction when it begins next spring.

Still, light-rail users who think they're in for an easy trip downtown can hit a headache coming home--like geologist Jim Lewis, towed twice from a space he says he was directed to by an RTD official. Nonetheless, he says he still sometimes takes light rail because "it seems like the community thing to do."

Lewis is tempted, however, to vent his wrath. "I've thought of calling them up on a Friday morning from the train," he says, "and letting people scream at them on the cellular phone."

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