With most classes online and fewer students on campus, the seemingly impossible task of finding a parking space during a regular week of the fall semester has never been easier as parking lots around campus are dominated by emptiness and an unusual void.
This atypical reality, however, has significantly impacted Parking and Transportation Services’ operations, and with a rough financial year ahead, the department expects a loss of close to half of its multimillion-dollar revenue from parking permit sales, as many students have opted to not return to campus because of the shift to online classes.
Parking and Transportation Services’ budget for the 2020-2021 fiscal year prior to the pandemic projected $9.75 million in sales from parking permits, according to Assistant Director of Communications for Administrative Services Aaron Nichols. A reevaluation of the budget now forecasts about $5.3 million in sales from parking permits — less than half of the amount it takes to run the parking operations on campus.
With the loss in revenue and less activity to monitor on campus, Parking and Transportation Services is adjusting by making some alternative hiring decisions this year.
As of Sept. 3, PATS had 98 employees, 65 of those being in administrative positions, 21 other personal services (OPS) employees and 12 students.
“We have suspended filling some vacant positions for this fiscal year,” said Nichols. “Some student employees and part-time employees have opted not to return to work for various reasons.”
Parking and Transportation Services has experienced downsizing for financial reasons as well as COVID-19-related restrictions, like limiting the capacity of people allowed on each Bull Runner at a time.
With about 48 active drivers, the Bull Runner, USF’s bus system that students, faculty and staff can ride for free with their USF ID, currently only allows nine passengers at a time.
“So far, this has not been an issue. If drivers encounter situations where there is a higher demand than a bus can accommodate, Bull Runner dispatch will realign other buses to meet the demand,” said Nichols in an email to The Oracle. “The driver will let riders who cannot be accommodated know another bus is on the way.”
Matthew Melton, a graduate student studying medical engineering, based his housing decision on being able to ride the Bull Runner to avoid parking issues.
“[I] purposely got an apartment close enough to campus to ride the Bull Runner,” Melton said. “That way, [I] would never have to worry about parking. Also, free transportation equals no money spent on gas.”
However, some went ahead and made permit purchases out of necessity and said they have experienced a very different world of USF parking than under normal circumstances, where thousands of people are vying for spots.
“I bought a parking pass,” said senior corporate finance major Josh Carter, who has to be on campus four days a week. “I have had zero issues finding a spot. I can even leave and come back and usually don’t have any trouble finding a good spot.”
While Carter purchased a permit for the semester, others have gone ahead and made the purchase for the whole year.
“I bought an annual pass since it’s the best deal if you’re planning on being on campus during fall, spring and summer, but now I’m regretting it because school will probably end up closing and people don’t seem to be getting ticketed anyways,” said accounting major Erin Kerrigan. “I don’t think they should have charged for parking this year. [The] purchase probably wasn’t worth it.
“A couple of my friends have told me they haven’t bought parking passes because they’re waiting to see if school will close, but they haven’t been ticketed yet.”
Annual parking permits for residents, commuter students and employees range from $156 to over $400, and parking permits for a semester range from $91 to $135. If a driver doesn’t have a permit, they can also opt to use a daily parking pass for $5 or a timed parking spot, which allows for parking from 30 minutes to eight hours.
Parking tickets for vehicles that are parked on campus without an active permit or decal are $30, but some students have been willing to take the risk.
“I have one class two days a week and haven’t bought a parking pass or used a meter. There’s tons of parking [at the] BSN building and no one has ticketed me yet so I’d say parking on campus is pretty sweet right now,” said senior mathematics education major Gillian Gaines.
Since most students have many of their classes online, opting out of purchasing a permit seems to be the most popular option, which explains the ease in finding parking now — whether or not it’s done at the risk of ticketing.
In fact, only 12,457 permits — student, resident, employee and other specialty permits — have been purchased this year between July 1 to Sept. 2. This is more than a 70 percent decrease from last fiscal year’s sale of 37,945 permits, and even more from the 2018-19 fiscal year, when 40,749 parking permits were sold.
Holding off on purchasing permits can save those who usually commute to and from campus $100 to over $200 — money that would also not be refunded if campus were to shut down its operations again like it did in the spring semester.
“If it is necessary to revert to a previous phase of our return-to-campus plan, for instance in phase I of the plan all course instruction is remote, there are currently no plans to refund the cost of parking permits,” said Nichols. “This decision may be reviewed by university leadership if such a situation occurs.”
For some students, the conversation over refunds from spring was a big factor in their decision to not purchase a permit for this semester and the year ahead.
“[I] didn’t buy one and don’t plan on it,” said senior biomedical sciences major Tess Etheridge. “I think everyone can agree that the university not reimbursing spring semester passes had a huge impact on our opinion as well.
“The university not reimbursing the passes in the spring due to COVID was selfish. Everyone on the Facebook pages were furious about the lack of care and support that the university had towards us wanting a simple reimbursement. The pass was for the whole semester, not half. First, some people got some money back, but then they stopped due to the surplus of people wanting their money back.”
The number of people not purchasing parking permits because they lack reason to be on campus will continue to affect Parking and Transportation Services as it is projecting a 35 percent overall loss in revenue for the 2020-2021 fiscal year. “I would have gotten a pass if it meant that some of the money I spent on the spring pass rolled over to this semester, however it didn’t,” said Etheridge. “It is more cost-efficient to just pay the parking meter or not even come.”