OP-ED: Con Ed owes commuters, should fund library

By FRANK GORDON
It has been several months, but Harrison residents have yet to hear anything about the status of negotiations with Con Edison over the amount the town will be paid for Con Ed’s use of a portion of the town’s commuter parking lot for about a month in October 2013.

For the most part, this amount represents a windfall for the town as it incurred little additional cost to accommodate Con Ed’s request to use the lot. The burden fell primarily on Harrison’s commuters, who were displaced and forced to find parking elsewhere, despite having paid $600 a year each for a commuter parking permit.

As a consequence, the lion’s share of any monies collected from Con Ed rightfully belong to parking permit holders, not the town. In light of the spirit of community that has prevailed in Harrison throughout its existence, I have no doubt that commuters will wholeheartedly support applying those funds to the downtown library’s planned renovation.

The incident that sparked Con Ed’s request to use the town’s commuter lot was the failure on Sept. 25, 2013, of one of its feeder cables in Mt. Vernon. The failure forced Metro-North to reduce service by half on its New Haven line. With the Town of Harrison’s permission, Con Ed was able to solve the problem by temporarily erecting a substation in the north section of the town’s commuter parking lot. The substation tapped into Con Ed’s local distribution system to supply substitute power to Metro-North so that normal train service could resume.

The section of the lot commandeered by Con Ed contained 75 parking space—as determined by my manual count on Dec. 3, 2013—which were no longer available to commuters. This situation lasted for about a month, until Oct. 28. During this period, the town allowed commuter permit holders to park on residential streets without regard to posted time restrictions.

Now that the supply of electricity and train service has returned to normal, the time is ripe to determine what, if any, recompense is due as a result of these events. How would one determine a level of compensation that is fair under these circumstances?

One component would be the fair rental value of the property used by Con Ed for about a month. The most objective indicator of the property’s fair rental value would seem to be the commuter parking spaces directly across the Metro-North tracks on Halstead Avenue in Harrison. These spaces are available for rental from Metro-North at $7.50 per space per day. Accordingly, the fair rental value component of compensation due from Con Ed would be $7.50 per day times 75 spaces for 30 days; a total of $16,875.

A second component of compensation due from Con Ed would be reimbursement for the cost of extra police duty. During the initial stages of the crisis, local roads near Con Ed’s temporary substation had to be partially cordoned-off and monitored by town police for the sake of public safety. This extra police detail lasted for several days. My best estimate of the cost of such additional police protection would be $5,000 to $10,000.

A third component of compensation due from Con Ed relates to lost parking violations revenue. As mentioned above, during the period Con Ed occupied the commuter lot, commuters were allowed to park on residential streets without regard to posted time restrictions. In doing so, commuters displaced the normal flow of parking traffic. Parking turnover was greatly reduced, which, presumably, led to fewer parking violations. The town does not publish data relating to parking violations revenue, but I would guess it declined substantially. Without access to the actual data, estimating the amount of lost parking violations revenue is difficult, but I would speculate that it dropped at least 50 percent, perhaps representing a decline of approximately $3,000 to $5,000, during the period.

A fourth component of compensation due from Con Ed would repay commuters for the inconveniences they endured. When a commuter purchased an annual parking permit, he or she anticipated, among other things, a high likelihood of an available parking spot near the train station, which would enable a fleet-footed commuter to dodge inclement weather and avoid having to cross a main thoroughfare on foot to reach the train station. These benefits can be summarized as availability, protection from the elements and personal safety.

Allowing commuters to park on residential streets was an imperfect substitute in this regard. Availability of parking on residential streets was, at times, unpredictable, especially on days when the town court was in session. On those days, it is well known that local streets become clogged with the parked vehicles of court visitors. Court was in session on eight days during the month that Con Ed occupied the commuter lot, which amounts to 40 percent of the period if only business days are counted; those days being of primary relevance to the average commuter. As a result, many commuters faced increased search times for parking.

If commuters were fortunate enough to find parking on a residential street, it was often several blocks or more from the train station, exposing them to inclement weather and the risks of crossing busy thoroughfares, such as Halstead Avenue or Harrison Avenue, on foot during the morning and evening rush hours.

Consequently, from the standpoint of availability, protection from the elements and personal safety, commuter parking permit holders were poorly served by substituting parking on local streets for parking in the commuter lot. Since each permit holder paid $600 for a permit, they deserve compensation for their inconvenience.

It is difficult to assign a monetary value to permit holders’ inconvenience under these circumstances. Metro-North’s refund policy as a result of the disruption in train service during this crisis can serve as a guidepost. During the 12 days of Con Ed’s feeder cable outage, Metro-North operated only limited service on the New Haven Line. As a result, at times trains did not run at all, were overcrowded when they did run and were often late. Commuters experienced increased travel times and reduced availability of trains and seating.

After extensive deliberations regarding how to compensate its customers, Metro-North decided that each commuter who regularly purchased a monthly commuter pass would receive a credit equal to 25 percent of the cost of two monthly commuter passes. This amount was roughly equivalent to the full cost of commuting for the 12 days that service was disrupted.

Applying the same math to the situation of a Harrison commuter parking permit holder, each permit holder would be entitled to compensation equal to 25 percent of the cost of two months of permit parking. Based on the annual price of a permit of $600, two months of parking would cost $100 and 25 percent of that would be $25. The Metro-North refund policy represents a valid guidepost on the grounds the inconveniences endured by the average Metro-North commuter and Harrison parking permit holder during the period in question were roughly similar.

At the time Con Ed began using the commuter lot, there were about 530 commuter permit holders. The cost of $25 compensation to each of them would amount to $13,250. An alternative measure of compensation for the inconvenience faced by commuter permit holders would be to refund the cost of one month of permit parking for each of the 75 parking spaces used by Con Ed. That would amount to $50 times 75, or $3,750. These two methods provide a range of $3,750 to $13,250 for compensation as a result of inconveniencing existing permit holders.

Combining each of the foregoing estimates results in total compensation due from Con Ed as follows:

Fair rental value of 

north commuter lot

$16,875

Police detail

$5,000 to $10,000

Reduced parking 

violations revenue

$3,000 to $5,000

Inconvenience to existing

permit holders

$3,750 to $13,250

Total

$28,625 to $45,125

These amounts involve much guesswork, so should be considered merely estimates. Actual amounts may differ.

Any amounts collected from Con Ed with respect to its use of the commuter lot represent something of a windfall for the town because such amounts were unanticipated and, therefore, are not included in the 2014 town budget.

The town was able to grant Con Ed the use of the lot only through the forbearance and goodwill of its existing commuter permit holders. The area in question had already been set aside for commuters who purchased a permit to park there. The town has an ethical and moral obligation to existing permit holders to not renege on its agreement with them. The town cannot rightfully pledge the lot to permit holders and then pledge it again to someone else. Accordingly, the lion’s share of amounts collected from Con Ed belongs to commuter permit holders, not the town.

In lieu of paying the town for using the commuter lot, Con Ed should contribute the amount to the Harrison Public Library Foundation to support the downtown library’s planned renovation. In light of the spirit of community that has prevailed in Harrison throughout its existence, I am sure commuter permit holders would wholeheartedly support applying the funds in this manner. Alternatively, a portion of the funds could be paid by Con Ed to the town to defray its out-of-pocket costs and losses—for example, to cover the police detail and reduced parking violations revenue—and the remainder could be contributed to the library foundation.

Any contribution by Con Ed to the library foundation would be matched dollar-for-dollar by the Jarden Corporation, subject to a maximum match of $100,000.

The town’s granting of permission to Con Ed to use the commuter lot was done in the spirit of generosity and helping others in times of need. We can only hope that Con Ed and the town will embrace the foregoing proposal as a way to pay that spirit forward.

Frank Gordon is a Harrison resident. The views expressed are his.