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Thursday, April 25, 2024

UF transportation loses $1.1 million from COVID-19 closures

UF parking during COVID-19

UF Transportation and Parking Services has lost $1.1 million since April due to COVID-19, according to the department director, Scott Fox.

TPS suffered losses after refunding and waiving fees for parking decals in April and Summer once UF transitioned to remote learning. TPS doesn’t know how many staff and students will bring their cars back to campus, or if they will lose more funds in Fall, Fox said.

In May, TPS refunded student, faculty and staff parking decals for April. They also waived decal fees from May to August.

“We thought it was the right thing to give refunds for parking people could not use,” Fox said.

To bridge its million dollar gap, TPS dipped into its reserves and freezed hiring, Scott said. About $1.1 million of the department’s $6.3 million general reserves were used to pay the April refunds, said TPS Associate Director Ron Fuller.

TPS did not replace their $75,000 worth of bike racks this year like they usually do every two to three years, Fuller said.

The department also held off buying a new Gator Lift vehicle it needed to replace one of its outdated vehicles, he said. Gator Lift is a shuttle service for students, faculty and staff with mobility-related disabilities. Instead of the outdated Gator Lift shuttle, TPS is using a Campus Cab vehicle with a similar wheelchair lift.

“When it comes to things like maintaining the structure of a parking garage, you really can’t wait,” Fox said. “You’ve got to move forward or else it becomes unsafe.”

With so few classes occurring in person this Fall, students like Shanaya Delice say they’re reconsidering whether or not to purchase a parking decal.

A standard annual decal costs $160 for students, according to TPS’s website. Faculty and staff can purchase access to gated parking areas for $1,512 a year. Standard access decals for faculty and staff are $420.

Delice said she’s heard from UF students that TPS sells more decals than there are parking spaces. She’s right — Fox wrote in a text message to The Alligator that TPS sells about 10,000 more decals each year than there are available parking spaces.

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“They don’t have enough space most of the time, so there ends up not being enough space on campus,” Delice said. “You might as well take the bus.”

TPS is discussing multiple scenarios for Fall semester, Scott said. He declined to discuss the worst case of these scenarios with the Alligator.

TPS opened its site Monday for purchasing decals in Fall. The site crashed soon after because of a technical error and was not up again until Tuesday.

It’s too soon to say if TPS will take another decal revenue hit in the Fall, Scott said, but one thing is certain.

“It would be physically difficult for us to repeat the fees and the refunds of the Summer because we have high fixed costs,” Scott said.

Economics Lecturer Kristian Estevez said that businesses like parking services can’t do much to survive the pandemic.

“There aren’t that many solutions for private services during the pandemic,” he said. “If students are not here, there’s nothing parking can do to encourage people to buy decals.”

TPS is an auxiliary service, which means it doesn’t receive any financial support from UF or Florida, Scott said. Instead, all of its operations are funded by the revenue it creates, and usually TPS’s earnings barely cover the expenses, he said.

TPS spends more than $1 million annually to maintain the structural integrity of the parking garages, he said. The department is about $33 million in debt after building parking Garage 14 near UF’s New Physics Building in February, he said, and must also allocate funds to public transportation and paying employees.

Estevez doesn’t foresee the economy getting better any time soon.

“Many economists have been saying this since the beginning,” he said. “You can’t fix the economy until you get the virus under control.”

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Lianna Hubbard

Lianna Hubbard is a reporter for The Alligator’s Investigative Team. The UF women’s study major began as a freelance reporter three years ago. She founded her community college’s award-winning newspaper before beginning at The Independent Florida Alligator. See an issue in your community or a story at UF? Send tips to her Twitter.

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