By Andrew Brophy

Fees for commuters who park at the Fairfield and Southport railroad stations are on track for a 23.5 percent increase.

The Parking Authority on Thursday reached a consensus to raise the annual cost of a parking permit at the downtown train station from $340 to $420, and the annual cost of a permit at the Southport station from $230 to $285. The authority also voted to begin charging people who park in handicapped spaces at the two train stations. That cost would be either the daily parking fee of $6 or the annual cost of a regular permit.

The authority also voted to increase the annual cost of a bike locker from $25 to $30.

The Parking Authority needs to hold a public hearing on the proposed rate hikes before the planned effective date of July 1. The hearing date was not set by the board at its Thursday meeting.

Mary Kay Frost, the authority's chairwoman, said fees for parking permits have not increased since 1998 and that the proposed increase essentially amounts to $5 a year over the 14 years that the fees had not been raised.

Trudi Durrell, a Parking Authority member, said she believes a tri-party contract among the town, state Department of Transportation and a private developer had required the town to charge the same amount for a parking permit at the downtown and Southport train stations as the state charges at the new Fairfield Metro train station off lower Black Rock Turnpike. The cost of a permit at Fairfield Metro is $420 a year, and Cindy Placko, director of the Parking Authority, said she believes it's scheduled to increase on July 1.

But Parking Authority members said the authority was not a party of the tri-party agreement, and they saw no reason to hike the annual permit fee at Southport to $420. "Whoever signed the tri-partite agreement and said all three [train stations] should be the same never commuted, at least not out of Southport," Frost said.

David Becker, a Representative Town Meeting member from District 1 who attended Thursday night's meeting in Sullivan-Independence Hall, said he favors a lower rate in Southport, saying trains stopped less frequently there than at the other two train stations in Fairfield.

Frost said the cost of a permit in Southport is the lowest of any train station on Metro-North Railroad's New Haven line, but Placko said only 250 to 300 people a day use the Southport station and the town doesn't provide the same level of service there. By contrast, 3,000 a day used the downtown station before Fairfield Metro opened. Placko said she didn't have figures yet for how many passengers use the downtown station every day since Fairfield Metro opened in December.

The authority sells 1,800 parking permits at the downtown station and 225 permits at the Southport station, Placko said.

Higher parking permit fees are needed to help make up revenue lost when 85 "day parkers" at the Fairfield Railroad Station transferred to Fairfield Metro, and Chat 'N Chew, a tenant at the downtown depot, wants its rent because there are fewer customers, authority members said. The authority also will lose revenue from 113 parking spaces at the downtown station when those spaces are converted to general use, which was part of the tri-party agreement, Frost said.

Other looming expenses for the Parking Authority are the agency's problematic computer system and the plan to move bicycle racks at the Fairfield Railroad Station to a spot behind the Fairfield Theatre Co. at 70 Sanford St.

"Our revenue is down. We haven't raised them in a long time," Durrell said of the permit fees. "We have bills we have to pay."

Joanne Sheehan, an authority member, said she thought the fee should be $420 at Fairfield Railroad Station to match the fee at Fairfield Metro. "It's only six more dollars a month," she said of the proposed increase if it is pro-rated over a year.

Becker said he was worried that the authority could set a precedent by matching the fee at Fairfield Metro, which he said could "skyrocket" in the future.

Ronald Pine, a Parking Authority member, wasn't enthusiastic about raising the permit fee at the downtown station above $375, saying the economy is still recovering. Becker said rail commuters also were recently hit with higher ticket costs from Metro-North and other modes of transportation, such as subways, once they got off the train.

"Obviously, there's a perception issue," Becker said of the proposed 23.5 percent hike. "Anything in double digits at one time grabs people's attention." He said the authority may find it can't "oversell" railroad station parking lots as much as it does now. The authority can "oversell" a lot because not everyone who has a parking permit goes to the train station on the same day.

The authority decided not to hike the daily parking rate of $6 because most towns charge $5. But the authority plans to charge a $5 processing fee to people on a waiting list for a parking permit when those people are removed from the list. That fee, Sheehan said, would help to pay the cost of paperwork done by Parking Authority staff.\

Andrew Brophy is a freelance writer.