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How many more are ready to ride?

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Kim Bjugan doesn't know what she'd do without the bus that stops near the Paragon Chateau Theatre every half hour between 6 and 8:30 a.m.

The Plainview resident was using the city's park-and-ride service at WalMart North, but when the retailer pulled the plug she switched to the site near the northeast movie theater, which offers 160 dedicated space, but on Thursday the lot at 3450 East Circle Drive Northeast contained more than 200 cars by 8 a.m.

Stuart Geltman, senior transit planner with Aecom, the consultant hired to develop the city's latest five-year transit plan, said overcrowding is likely to continue.

"As Mayo Clinic continues to grow — and associated downtown employers grow — the demand for park-and-ride systems are going to continue to grow," he said.

Rochester contracts for 1,297 spaces spread throughout five lots, and the city and Olmsted County recently inked a deal to add another 138 spots at Graham Park in July. The spaces allow commuters a chance to park at no cost and use a bus pass to get downtown.

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Using a count from January last year, Geltman noted the city's five contract lots were filled to 101 percent capacity. The Chateau Theatre lot topped the list at 155 percent capacity, with 248 vehicles parking in a lot contracted for 160.

The city is eyeing another 125 spaces for a park-and-ride stop at Bethel Lutheran Church, 810 Third Ave. SE, but the proposed contract was put on hold earlier this month when Rochester City Council member Mark Bilderback cited concerns voiced by neighbors.

Bethel concerns

Bilderback and city staff met with neighbors from the Slatterly Park and Sunnyside neighborhoods Tuesday to discuss the concerns and look at options.

Ahmed Makkawy, a member of the Slatterly Park Neighborhood Association board, said two issues have been raised — worry that overflow parking will crowd neighborhood streets and that morning and afternoon traffic congestion will worsen where Third Avenue Southeast meets Ninth Street at the south side of the parking lot.

"I see people cutting through the church parking lot to avoid Ninth Street," he said.

Additionally, nearby neighbors envision the lot attracting more than 125 vehicles since it will be the closest park-and-ride location to Rochester's downtown. The direct service could lure people to fill streets Makkawy said are already considered tight.

Bilderback said on-street parking could be handled by requiring permits, which has been a solution in a growing number of blocks surrounding Mayo Clinic facilities. Traffic concerns, on the other hand, he said will need to be studied.

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DMC discussion

While the Bethel site would be the only park-and-ride location next to a residential neighborhood, discussions of enhancing parking opportunities in the general vicinity have been frequent since discussions of Destination Medical Center started.

Last week, members of the DMC Corp. board met with transportation planners to discuss options, which could include constructing ramps on the edge of the DMC footprint to encourage commuters to use public transit to finish their daily journeys.

R.T. Rybak, a DMCC board member, cited the challenge and pointed to the importance of making the final section of the commute as pleasant as possible, which requires predictable schedules.

"The main thing we're trying to do is get people to do things that are illogical," he said, noting the logical choice would appear to be taking a car from door to door.

To some extent, Mayo Clinic already encourages the use of parking alternatives that by limiting options for employees and providing bus passes for those who use the city's park-and-ride services.

With two and a half years as a clinic employee, Bjugan said she's not sure what her options would be, and she said downtown parking privileges aren't provided until people are deep in their careers.

System growth

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Nick Lemmer said that's why the city remains in search of new opportunities.

The cost of providing the spaces varies for the city. In a new contract with the county, the city will pay $17 per space — $2,856 total — each month and will take care of snow and ice removal. The county will provide a credit for days when fairground events prohibit parking for commuters.

If approved, the Bethel agreement will be the city's most expensive on a per-space basis — $25 per space — but Lemmer noted the church pays for snow removal and the city fills a growing need.

Other spaces have been found at no cost to the city, especially those where commuters get off buses next to stores.

"Ideally, we'd like them all to cost nothing," Lemmer said.

He said at least one more park-and-ride location is in the works. City staff is working on an agreement with Rochester Community and Technical College, which could be in place this fall.

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