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Chicago Tribune news: Car dead in Metra lot? Free aid on way


Car dead in Metra lot? Free aid on way
Virginia Groark
Tribune staff reporter

September 1, 2006


Hopping off a train on a subzero night and finding a car with a dead battery
likely tops many commuters' list of horror stories.

But starting this fall, thousands of Metra riders who could find themselves
in that predicament will be able to get some free, and fast, help. A
Canadian firm that is taking over management of Metra's parking lots will
not only assist with such problems as flat tires and empty gas tanks, it
will pay stranded motorists $50 if it takes more than 45 minutes to respond
to a help call.

Metra officials think the service will be a boon to commuters.

"It's something that we know is helpful because in all of the parking lots,
we've had someone in that situation," said Metra spokeswoman Judy Pardonnet,
who got off a Metra train one wintry night to discover her car wouldn't
start.

Such a program would have been a great help to Mazon resident Nancy Schuma a
few years back. Battling the flu, she left her job in the Loop early one
wintry day to get off the train in New Lenox and discover her car battery
was dead. She had to walk to a gas station, call for help and then wait.

Just this week, Schuma said she spotted a female Metra rider sitting in her
mini-van with the hood up in the same parking lot waiting for help.

"Wow," Schuma said when told of the vehicle assistance program. "Something
like that, I think people would definitely use if they don't have a towing
service."

Unfortunately for Schuma, the program won't apply to her lot. The feature,
known as Parker Pete, will be available at all 37 Metra-owned lots, which is
less than half of the lots on the six-county system.

The program appears to be a first of its kind in the region.

Though customer service aides at O'Hare and Midway Airports offer free
assistance for such difficulties as a flat tire or lost car, they don't have
to respond within a certain time, said Wendy Abrams, Chicago Department of
Aviation spokeswoman.

At the Chicago Transit Authority's Park & Ride lots, commuters with car
problems are on their own. The agency's contract with Standard Parking
doesn't include free assistance to stranded motorists, CTA spokeswoman
Sheila Gregory said.

Until now, Metra didn't offer the service either. But that will change this
fall when Impark takes over the management of the more than 8,100 parking
spaces under a contract the Metra board members approved last week.

"They thought that would be in the best interest of Metra and the riders,"
said Pardonnet, who noted the cost of issuing $50 checks will not be passed
along to Metra or the people who park in the lots.

Under the program, people who need vehicle assistance should look for a
Parker Pete sign, which features an image of a wrench-toting handyman along
with a number to call. If help doesn't arrive within 45 minutes, Impark will
pay the motorist $50, according to Metra documents.

Putting a time element on customer service has worked in other venues.
Domino's Pizza, for instance, saw an increase in its growth after starting a
program that gave away pizzas for free or at a reduced price if they weren't
delivered within 30 minutes.

Although the company dropped the campaign after its drivers started getting
into accidents, other companies adopted the concept to keep valued customers
or to impose a quality control on customer service.

Although Metra didn't request the parking assistance program, the feature
along with the $50 courtesy check was one of the reasons the commuter
railroad's evaluation committee gave Impark top scores in a customer service
category that analyzes conveniences or innovations that favor Metra riders,
according to agency documents.

The high score put the firm ahead of two other companies bidding for the
job, including CPS Parking, which currently holds the contract, documents
show.

In addition to the motorist assistance program, Impark also will institute a
new way for people to pay for parking. Commuters will be able to register on
Impark's Web site (www.imparkwireless.com). That way if they are running
late and don't want to risk a parking ticket or miss a train, they can call
on their cell phones to pay, said Julian Jones, the company's vice president
of business development.

For someone running behind schedule, such a service could make the
difference between choosing Metra or driving to work, said David Schulz,
executive director of the Infrastructure and Technology Institute at
Northwestern University.

"You might divert some of them [to Metra] who would otherwise take the
highway," he said. "So you might pick up some ridership there."

That's especially true at some lots where the fines increase if a commuter
has accrued a certain number of tickets within a certain time span.

Overall, the customer service elements of the contract enhance Metra's
ability to provide comfort, convenience and safety to its customers, key
elements in encouraging people to take mass transit, Schulz said.

"Are they going to attract 5 percent more riders because of these kind of
amenities? No," Schulz said. "But generally they have a pretty positive
relationship with their riders, and I think these kind of additional
services are only going to make people feel better about Metra."

- - -

Lots of assistance

Metra will offer mechanical assistance to vehicles parked in lots at these
stations.

Stations arranged by Metra line:

BURLINGTON NORTHERN SANTA FE

- Belmont

ELECTRIC

- 115th/Kensington

- Ashland

- 93rd/Commercial

MILWAUKEE DISTRICT-NORTH

- Long Lake

- Forest Glen

- Edgebrook

- Lake Cook Road

MILWAUKEE DISTRICT-WEST

- Mont Clare

- Mars

- Galewood

- Schaumburg/Roselle Side

- National Street

- Chicago Street

- Big Timber

- Wood Dale

ROCK ISLAND DISTRICT-BEVERLY

- Brainerd

- 91st/Beverly

- 99th/Beverly

- 103rd/Beverly

- 107th/Beverly

- 111th/Beverly

- 115th/Morgan Park

- 119th Street

ROCK ISLAND DISTRICT-MAIN

- Washington Heights

- Gresham

- 95th/Vincennes

SOUTH SHORE

- Hegewisch

SOUTH WEST SERVICE

- Ashburn

- Wrightwood

UNION PACIFIC-NORTH

- Ravenswood

- Main Street

UNION PACIFIC-NORTHWEST

- Jefferson Park

- Edison Park

- Pingree Park

UNION PACIFIC-WEST

- La Fox

Source: Metra

Chicago Tribune

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