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Some Cal State Fullerton students get Fs in parking

There are too many cars on campus and too few places to put them. It's a fine opportunity.

September 01, 2009|Paloma Esquivel

They haunt the parking garages here.

Eager students lurk on the outer edges of lots, hoping to sneak into an overlooked space and then race to class.

Others linger near the elevators, picking out likely candidates and inching behind them as they head to their cars, waiting to swoop when the space is vacated.

A few try a more advanced plan of attack: striking deals with friends, trading detailed schedules and swapping spots at just the right moment.

Cal State Fullerton is the quintessential Southern California commuter campus. Nearly 95% of its 36,000 students arrive every day by car. No matter how many lots the campus builds, the demand far outstrips the available spaces. It doesn't help that one of the only ways to fund parking lots is through parking fees and tickets.

So while students steadfastly patrol for spots, an army of officers in blue aggressively hunts scofflaws and issues citations. Every few minutes, it seems, a parking enforcement officer is standing next to an errant vehicle, printing out a ticket.

Last year, students, visitors and even faculty members paid more than $1.275 million to the college in parking tickets.

And now, campus administrators have one more tool: While unsuspecting students rush back and forth to class, the Mobile Plate Hunter 900 is searching for wrongdoers.

The plate hunter consists of two cameras that scan license plates and feed data into a laptop inside the patrol car; the computer spits out information about any fines attached to the plates.

The technology was deployed on campus for the first time two years ago to catch people who rack up parking tickets, school officials said.

Despite criticism from some quarters that campus parking enforcement is excessive, school officials say they have no choice.

"The only way we can build these garages is to charge students who park there," said Bill Barrett, associate vice president for administration.

"We might seem aggressive to some people," he said, but the school's intent is "to get those who try to skim the system to pay up."

With the mobile plate hunter, drivers who collect five or more unpaid tickets are identified and their cars are immobilized, said Joseph Ferrer, director of parking services and transportation at Cal State Fullerton. Last year, 169 vehicles were immobilized.

In recent years, law enforcement agencies throughout the country have begun using similar technology to identify stolen cars and track down wanted suspects. Civil liberties experts have criticized the technology as an invasion of privacy because the cameras scan all visible plates, not just those belonging to suspected wrongdoers.

But Ferrer said the only information available to campus parking enforcement officers is the number of unpaid parking tickets on a particular plate. The money from parking fines, he said, helps the school promote alternative modes of transportation: public transit, carpools, walking and biking. It also goes to help build more parking garages, officials said.

The school -- which has about 11,200 parking spaces -- is working to expand capacity. The campus has a limited amount of space, so the only option for parking now is to "build up," Barrett said.

One structure that would accommodate about 1,500 spots is under construction. At the same time, however, another parking area is being replaced by student housing.

Many Cal State Fullerton students "have jobs or are racing from a job or child care to get here," Barrett said. "We try to accommodate as many commuter students as we can."

Many students seem resigned to shaping their lives around the hunt for the ever more elusive parking spot.

Alyssa Fisher, 21, a junior who lives in Rancho Cucamonga, said she arrives on campus at 8 a.m. for an 11 a.m. communications class in order to get a parking place. She takes her laptop, stakes out a place at an outdoor table and studies.

"If I get here by 8:15 a.m., it's completely full," she said.

Nicole Andrews, 20, a junior who lives in Carson, said sometimes even 8 isn't early enough. She recalled recently arriving an hour early for an 8 a.m. class and still having a difficult time finding a spot.

She admitted to parking violations in the past.

"I did the deed," she said. "Sometimes you just need to park. You have to get to class."

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paloma.esquivel@latimes.com

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