Maybe Will Rogers said it best: “Politics ain’t worrying this country one tenth as much as where to find a parking space.” Thus, in a year when there is neither federal nor state campaigns for public office in Maine, it is time to turn attention to a subject that will indeed draw more interest than choosing leaders of our government.

There are vital areas where parking and politics intersect. Visitors to the nerve center of Maine government in Augusta, for example, will ordinarily – after abiding outdoor spaces reserved for legislators and other government leaders – park at the Grove Street garage.

It was built 35 years ago at the behest of the last GOP Speaker of the House, Richard Hewes. It’s a few steps behind the Blaine House and about a three-minute walk from the State House. Among its 343 spaces there’s almost always a few not snatched by commuters and visitors – though it may take awhile to find them. (One has to frequently meander through all three of its levels.)

Having found a space, one emerges from the garage, darting first across Grove Street, then dodging traffic while crossing Capitol Street and finally climbing the somewhat daunting, steep inclines to access the State House. It’s an exhilarating relief. After all, it feels great to be outdoors again – this time of year at any rate – after escaping the darkened, prison-like atmosphere of a concrete garage.

Wintertime is a different story. Then, the unheated parking dungeon is a welcome refuge from the ice and snow. (Unless your vehicle is exposed to the elements on its uppermost levels.)

Season is not only a factor in how long one lingers in the State House parking garage, it’s also a major player in parking dilemmas elsewhere in Maine. The typical Maine community finds spring and summer a welcome respite from the parking challenges of winter, because more spaces emerge to accommodate parking and slip-and-fall risks for vehicle occupants once they exit their cars or trucks decreases. Gone too are most overnight parking bans.

Summer brings its own demands. Addressing an influx of tourists is one. Thus, Old Orchard Beach and York Beach install parking meters in the summer. This helps promote turnover. But it risks disaffecting those who consider paying for parking an irritation they had hoped to leave behind when taking flight to Maine.

The prospect of parking meters rearing their heads in the Maine towns where they hibernate for the winter brings to mind another feature of parking that, as Will Rogers would say, “worries” the country: its cost.

Take for example, a popular prescription to relieve parking congestion: The parking garage. A look at the price-per-space for some of Maine’s most recent garages and it is clear why there aren’t more. The five-level, 1,039-space garage completed last year at Portland Jetport cost some $36.1 million, or over $34,000 per-space. Less daunting was the $14 million paid by University of Southern Maine in 2004 for its 1,150-space garage in Portland, for $12,000 per-space. Another garage built in Westbrook the same year cost about the same per space as USM’s.

At either price, the cost is a more than what many Maine communities would pay. It’s the reason why one won’t likely see new garages sprouting in such seasonally parking-challenged domains as Freeport, Camden, Sugarloaf, Old Orchard Beach or Kennebunkport.

Nevertheless, parking garages offer advantages. For one thing, by clustering parking, garages combat sprawl. By cutting the distance between parking space and destination, it enhances accessibility and also reduces risk of pedestrian mishap. Garages also shelter cars from the elements.

One drawback garages and surface lots have in common is security. Various studies show over half of criminal activity at shopping centers and business offices occur in parking areas. Nor are the sanctuaries of colleges campuses immune.

The September 2003 murder of Colby College senior Dawn Rossignol, for example, began with her abduction in broad daylight from a college parking lot. Colleges are particularly vulnerable because, unlike parking lots at most shopping centers and strip malls, lots such as those for Colby’s dormitory students are out of public view. They’re often in secluded wooded areas and isolated from activity areas.

Campuses are typically designed to showcase green space not paved space, after all.

Reconciling aesthetics with parking security is a worry Will Rogers, whose own transportation misadventure led to his death in an airplane crash in 1935, probably didn’t have in mind when he remarked on the priority Americans gave parking over politics.

It’s one of the several challenges of parking which he would no doubt have something original to say, were he alive today.

Paul H. Mills is a Farmington attorney well known for his analyses and historical understanding of Maine’s political scene. E-mail: [email protected]

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