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Commuters Gain Leg Up by Leaving 2nd Car at Train Station Overnight

THE REGION

May 06, 2001|MIKE ANTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Roberta Cote abandoned her car for Amtrak to ease the pain of the 60-mile commute from her home in Encinitas to her job at John Wayne Airport.

Comfortable and reliable, the train whisks her where she needs to go: to her other car, the one with the faded paint, leaky window and seats that look like a tiger mauled them.

"I call it my Fred Flintstone car," Cote said of the decade-old Saturn she keeps parked at the Irvine train station--her garage away from home. "It had been in a wreck. I got it for a couple of thousand from a friend of a friend. He needed to sell it, and I needed a junker."

Each morning, as Amtrak and Metrolink trains unload and pick up their human cargo, the busy Irvine station becomes the stage for a curious dance that speaks volumes about the limits of public transportation in Southern California.

As commuter train ridership has grown in recent years, so too has the number of second cars that are left overnight at free parking lots adjoining the region's train stations.

"There's a lot of people who do it," said Kevin Duncombe, who rides Metrolink from his home in San Juan Capistrano to the Norwalk station, then drives the final seven miles to his job as president of Western Pacific Pulp and Paper in Downey.

His first overnight car was a vintage Cadillac; he later upgraded to a Corvette convertible.

"There are some decent cars there--not many junkers. You'd be surprised," he said.

Transportation officials in Southern California say overnight cars can be found at nearly any big destination or transfer station--from Burbank and Glendale to Santa Ana and Orange.

But the parking lot at Irvine station has been particularly hard hit. Surrounded by 50,000 jobs at the Irvine Spectrum, the station handles nearly half of the passengers who come to work in Orange County from the Inland Empire. The station also handles a fifth of all passengers leaving Orange County for Los Angeles.

"Irvine has become a major transportation hub," said George Urch, a spokesman for the Orange County Transportation Authority, which built the station.

Irvine city officials say as many as a third of the 540 spaces are taken up by commuters' second cars--vehicles used to bridge the gap between where commuters want to go and where trains and buses will take them.

Indeed, the reasons people use overnight cars are as varied as the cars themselves.

For every rusty Reagan-era jalopy, there's someone whose workplace isn't anywhere near a connecting bus route. For every wheezing station wagon with fake wood paneling, there's someone who will pass up one of the free local shuttles that meet every train just to shave a few minutes off their daily burden.

At the crack of dawn, the Irvine parking lot is already three-quarters full with a hodgepodge of sleek Porsches and rattletrap Oldsmobiles, sensible Hondas and giant sport utility vehicles. By 7 a.m., it's jampacked, and commuters snake through the rows looking to snatch an overlooked space before heading for the overflow lot where valets double-park vehicles all day.

Terry Keller's truck is sitting in one of those slots.

Keller's day begins in the dark in San Bernardino. His fiancee drives him to the station, where he catches the 5:30 a.m. Metrolink, which pulls into Irvine 1 1/2 hours later. From there, it's 10 miles to his job at a Lake Forest mortgage company.

By shuttle--actually two shuttles--the trip takes 20 minutes.

By Toyota--his 1990 pickup with 160,000 miles on it--Keller can do it in 10 minutes, which barely gets him to work on time.

Stephen McCaughey has heard all the reasons for using a second car.

"I tell people, 'You don't have errands every day, do you? Can't you eat in the company cafeteria once in a while?' " said McCaughey, head of Spectrumotion, which arranges carpools for Spectrum workers.

McCaughey wishes he could ease the parking crunch by discouraging people from using overnight cars. "But we also have to be realistic," he said. "It's a hard sell."

In fact, everything about getting commuters to use public transportation is a hard sell, he said. When the city-instituted valet service three years ago to double-fill some lots, drivers balked at the $2 charge. Now it's free.

New train stations in Tustin and Laguna Niguel will take pressure off the Irvine station.

But, with ridership expected to climb, OCTA is lobbying Congress for $10 million to help build a multilevel parking structure.

Although second-car users may seem to undercut the spirit of public transportation, McCaughey says it's a start. "At least they're off the freeways," he said. "At least they're doing more than the average person."

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