Love the job, hate the parking

What was your worst day of commuting ever?

A snow day some years back comes to mind for me. Both Metrorail and the Maryland commuter trains were whacked. My office was next to Union Station at the time. I ran into a friend who worked nearby. So we got into my car and drive from Rockville, Maryland, into Washington, D.C. — don’t ask.

But, when I finally made it to my building, there was plenty of room to park in the underground garage.

And what’s worse than having a lousy commute only to reach a destination with inadequate parking? Yet that’s what many federal employees face every day, at least, they did before all the mass teleworking. Should the January return to the office actually happen, the old parking problems will resurface. Lack of reasonably convenient parking makes every day an anxious commute.

The distant parking spaces at the Pentagon are the stuff of legend. I don’t know what it’s like parking on the far side of Route 110 and traipsing a half mile to the Pentagon. I mean, it might be great if you could do it daily in jogging pants and hands free. But all suited up and carrying a backpack in August?

Agencies or locations with crummy or insufficient parking — and you know who you are — now’s a great time to do something about it. With money about to get schmeared everywhere, surely you can get funds for that parking garage or fleet of shuttle vans.

Which brings me to the case of Fort Meade, Maryland. This Army base houses the National Security Agency headquarters and a few other Defense Department components. The Defense Information Systems Agency and U.S. Cyber Command also live there.

The couple of times I’ve visited there I was amazed at the crush of vehicles pouring in through the security gates.  When you get through the gates, you’re basically nowhere. Fort Meade encompasses more than 5,000 acres. You’ve got to drive to where you need to be. In effect it’s a city, with its own zip code.

By all accounts, parking can be a nightmare. It’s not that NSA Fort Meade has too few spaces, it’s where they are, how they’re distributed. The inspector general field work occurred in 2019 and 2020. I’m guessing the parking at NSA loosened less than at other agencies in the pandemic because fewer NSA people could handle classified stuff by telework.

Basically, parking at the NSA headquarters is a horror show. It’s also a source of ongoing complaints by employees who dread it each day.

A new look-see by NSA’s inspector general found that parking complaints at Fort Meade go back a few years, like to 1954, shortly after formation of the agency itself. IG Robert Storch told me that NSA management knows it’s got a parking problem that leads to general grumpiness. But parking isn’t a priority, his report found — the agency “has failed to implement solutions that would minimize the parking shortage or improve employee morale.” It also mismanages parking in general.

Attempts to help the parking situation come off as comic. In one case, NSA acquired a $3 million “modular” parking structure to add spaces vertically. It looks like an Erector Set project in life size. Several engineering studies of the spindly structure — which sat directly on the black-top pavement — found it was too flimsy to safely drive cars onto. In 2019, NSA spent $600,000 to have it dismantled and removed.

A system to count cars coming and going from parking lots and display numbers of available spaces didn’t work out either. It wasn’t totally accurate. Rainwater seeped into the display and short circuited it. Last year NSA ripped out Key2Park altogether.

Also irritating to employees: Reserved spaces. The IG turned up lots of complaints about that in NSA blogs “JournalNSA” and “Parting Thoughts.”

To wit: “I didn’t want to walk a quarter to half a mile or shuttle in every day only to pass by empty
parking spaces designated for the elite (non-medical privileged parking needs to go),” said one poster.

The issues go on and on. The IG report even cites 41 Code of Federal Regulation Ch. 102, section 74.310. It requires agencies to constantly review their parking situation, and conduct employee surveys. But it found the NSA never has surveyed headquarters employees. The IG recommends the NSA do so “and use the results to develop a comprehensive parking and transportation plan, and strategies to achieve it, that align with [installation and logistics] goals.”

NSA management agreed with all of the IG recommendations. Let’s hope they take action. When you drive by on Maryland Route 32, that blue-green NSA glass box looks cool. But the issue of parking there burns red hot.

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