Parking problems on bases across Europe
It’s lunchtime and you’re hoping to run a few errands around the base.
For Americans, “running” errands often involves using a car. But since there are thousands of others with similar ambitions at U.S. military bases across Europe, strapping on some good shoes might be a better choice.
Because there’s that small matter of trying to find a place to park.
“What parking? There is no parking,” said Luz Montour, a military family member whose husband is assigned to Vicenza, Italy. “At lunchtime, it’s just impossible.”
“Impossible” can also be a word to describe the jobs of base officials across Europe who are constantly trying to devise ways to fit a steady stream of cars into a finite number of spaces. And, largely because of ongoing construction projects, those spaces are sometimes candidates for endangered species lists.
“It requires an innovative approach within the land constraints,” said Air Force Capt. Chaz Williamson of the 100th Civil Engineer Squadron at RAF Mildenhall in England.
Williamson was referring specifically to the Air Force base north of London, but he could have been talking about just about any base across Europe.
Words such as “challenge” and “constraints” come up quite a bit when discussing the issue.
“We don’t look at it as a problem,” said Lt. Col. David Lawson, deputy commander for the 22nd Area Support Group, which is based at Vicenza and supports Army bases in northern Italy. “We look at it as a challenge.”
“There are a number of constraints we operate with,” said Air Force Lt. Col. Mike Morris, vice commander of the 31st Support Group at Aviano Air Base in Italy. “It’s not a problem. It’s just what it is.”
“It’s near and dear to people’s hearts,” said Robert Graves, executive officer for the 411th Base Support Battalion in Heidelberg, Germany.
“We do take it very seriously and try to get as many spaces as we reasonably can.”
Getting that spot
Sometimes it’s not that easy to be reasonable when you’re in a hurry. Or when the weather is chilly or wet. Or when you’ve got to carry a lot of stuff. Or you’re supervising children.
Laura Corder-Chavez knows about those last two aspects. She’s a frequent visitor to Area 2 at Aviano. The area contains the base gymnasium, the child development center, several dorms and offices. Corder-Chavez, who teaches at the new consolidated school on Area 1 nearby, regularly drops off her child at the CDC. And several times a week, she runs practice for her girls high school basketball team at the gym.
On a recent Tuesday, she managed to find a space without a problem. Which was nice, because she had a few large bags of basketballs and other equipment to carry inside.
“It’s the first time all week I’ve gotten [a space],” she said. But she’s used to parking challenges. There’s limited parking space at the school, which opened in the fall.
“I get there at 6 in the morning so I can get a space,” she said.
Corder-Chavez said that less than a 10-minute walk from her school, there’s plenty of parking. Base officials knew that parking would be a problem with the complete overhaul of the area during the Aviano 2000 construction project, so they leased a piece of land outside the base, fenced it in and produced 300 parking spaces.
They’re rarely used.
That’s why Morris thinks the issue is more one of perception than reality in most cases.
“I think it’s a matter of expectations,” he said. “If you expect there to be a parking space right in front of your office, you’re going to be disappointed.”
Roger Teel, the public affairs officer for the Army’s hospital in Würzburg, Germany, said Americans are used to getting that kind of access in the States.
“It seems like it’s an American thing,” he said, “that everyone’s got to have a parking space close to where they want to go. We’ve got to make some [mental] changes when we’re over here.”
Nowhere to go
Teel admits that the parking situation at the hospital is not just one of overstated expectations.
“The patients have a problem and they have legitimate complaints,” he said. “We tell our patients to come at least an hour early and look for a parking space.”
The hospital has about 500 parking spaces. There are 860 people who work there. So, mathematically, there would be problems without any patients at all.
“We encourage our staff to walk to work,” Teel said. Leighton Barracks, which usually has some available parking, is just a few blocks away. “For security reasons, our people park on installations, not on the street.”
Street parking really isn’t an option for those at the Army’s hospital in Heidelberg because of the way the traffic flow is arranged around the facility. And the nearest other U.S. base — Campbell Barracks — is a long walk away and doesn’t have spaces to spare.
Motorists have to have stickers on their cars to get onto Campbell Barracks, the headquarters of U.S. Army Europe and V Corps, before 2 p.m.
“We want to get the folks on there who work there,” Graves said. “We can’t expand at all. The number of spaces we’ve got is the number of spaces we’ve got.”
Graves said the parking situation at the hospital, worsened by ongoing construction, “is not likely to get better in the foreseeable future — unless we grow up or down with a parking garage.”
After Sept. 11, parking garages are getting closer looks, especially those built underground. The fear is that a car bomb could wreak major damage in such a facility.
Aviano shut off the garages underneath the dorms on Area 2, pushing more cars onto already crowded areas. Base officials have tried to compensate by opening up the underground parking to those who are on long-term deployments. And they’ve put some tactical vehicles there.
Still, those living in the dorms often struggle to find a space.
“You’ve got people for the gym, the people who work here and the people in the dorms,” said Airman 1st Class Jon Wheatley, a dorm resident.
“You just try to find [a space] around here somewhere. A lot of times, you’ve got to park illegally and then you get a ticket.”
Parking illegally is not really an option at Aviano, Morris said. Cars blocking access to fire hydrants or creating unsafe conditions will be ticketed and possibly towed — and that’s not even considering the hazards they create.
Airman 1st Class Robert Wideman said he’s not blaming base officials for the situation, which often gets worse at lunch when Italians and Americans flock to the popular Mensa dining facility.
“I don’t see how they can fix it right here,” Wideman said, gesturing with his hands to indicate the crowded lot next to the gymnasium.
There are some strategies for finding a parking spot.
“Be here before people get off work,” said Airman 1st Class Sam Hoverson, after stepping out of a car driven by Airman 1st Class Dustin Walker into a space a few hundred feet from where Wideman was standing.
“Or just sit here and wait until someone leaves,” Walker added.
“It depends on the time and location,” said Spc. Tammy Siegen, with the 28th Transportation Platoon at Vicenza. “It’s definitely a challenge, whether you have a compact car or not. Lately, I’ve been walking, because parking is so tedious.”
Sgt. Bret Champlin of Headquarters and Headquarters Company for the 173rd Airborne Brigade at Vicenza, said if he can’t find something quickly, he parks farther away and walks.
“When you think about it, this whole place is the size of a Wal-Mart parking lot,” he said, referring to Caserma Ederle. “So you’re not that far away. It’s just an optical illusion.”
Base officials at Vicenza say they haven’t been using smoke and mirrors to deal with the problem, though. Roy Hurndon, the deputy commander for base operations, said about 270 new spaces have been created in the past few years.
But during that time, the base has added a new battalion of troops. And various construction projects across base “have been very pervasive,” he said. “We’ve spent a lot of time working on our infrastructure, which has a significant impact on parking.”
So when those projects are done, the spaces will be freed again. Several upcoming projects, including new dorms and a child development center, will bring in additional parking spaces.
Lawson said the command is always looking to free up spaces. A shuttle bus from the Villagio housing area a few miles away is slowly gaining popularity.
“Most of the people who ride it are return customers,” he said.
Aviano has a similar service to get people back and forth from the flight line to the Mensa dining facility.
Teel said such a service could be a big help for the hospital in Würzburg.
An elevated parking garage is also a possibility, but that would take a large amount of money and congressional approval. And parking would only get worse while such a project was under way.
Still, Williamson, the engineer at Mildenhall, said some sort of consolidated parking structure is probably the answer for his base, which has “an awkward parking layout for people who are looking for convenience.”
“I think we’re going to have to do that,” he said.
But what about getting the money for it?
“You’ve got to be optimistic,” he said.
It’s not all bad
If not optimistic, at least be patient.
Aviano, which is undergoing one of the largest military construction projects around the globe, will eventually have much more parking than it does now, Morris said. Many spaces will be freed up when construction equipment and material goes away.
“Is it going to get better?” he asked. “I think it is.”
That’s the case at a number of bases around Europe seeing lots of construction, from Ramstein Air Base in Germany to the Navy’s Capodichino facility in Naples.
And there are plenty of places where parking isn’t usually a problem.
In Heidelberg, the construction of a new commissary adjoining the Patrick Henry Village housing area has helped the parking situation in two spots. The base that formerly housed the commissary in the downtown area now has much more room for those heading to the post exchange. And those parking at the commissary rarely have trouble finding a spot.
That’s also the case at new commissaries in places such as Mannheim in Germany and Italian bases at Aviano and Vicenza.
Ron DiBenedetto, the master planner at Aviano, said there’s no coincidence there. When the military starts new projects — especially when additional land is involved — extra parking is always factored in. That was the case when Aviano built a combined commissary/base exchange complex on land the base was given by the Italian government.
“In that case, we had some additional land to work with,” he said. “In Areas 1 and 2, we don’t have that opportunity.”
There are bases, many of them in more rural settings, where parking isn’t always an issue. Camp Darby, which is on the west coast of Italy a few miles from any large city, can get crowded in the summer when military tourists from other areas migrate in. But even then, there are almost always areas to park at the sparsely populated base.
Finding a parking space is even easier at U.S. bases in the Balkans. That’s mainly because POVs are essentially nonexistent there.
“It’s really kind of a non-issue here,” said Maj. John Dowling, a spokesman for Multinational Division-North in Bosnia and Herzegovina, who says there are only a handful of civilian vehicles on base.
“I don’t think anyone is parking more than 100 meters from where they do business.
“I think if everyone here had POVs, then it would be a massive problem.”
That’s because those bases were not designed with parking in mind, unlike their counterparts in Germany, Italy, England and other spots in Europe.
Even if it doesn’t seem like it sometimes.
“It should not appear that this was unplanned or that nobody thought of it,” Morris said of Aviano’s construction-driven parking crunch. “That’s not true.
“No one is exempt,” he said. “This is the great leveler. Everyone has to find a parking space.”
Counting all the vehicles on base not simple math
One of the reasons there are parking crunches at many U.S. military bases across Europe might be that there are simply too many cars for too few spaces.
Finding out how many spaces exist is theoretically possible. But each base would have to conduct a survey to document all it has to offer.
And, because of construction and other factors, the number of spaces on individual bases often changes daily.
Getting a handle on how many cars there are is a bit easier.
Most servicemembers and civilians assigned to Europe are eligible to have one vehicle shipped at government expense.
Dan Sonju is the contracting officer for the 598th Transportation Terminal Group, which oversees the government contract to ship vehicles to Europe. American Auto Logistics is the company that holds the contract.
Sonju said between January and December, 39,601 vehicles were shipped either to or from Europe. Historically, the number of cars going out is about equal to the number coming in, he said. For example, 1,379 vehicles were shipped to Europe in during November and 1,337 were sent back to the States.
These numbers don’t take into account the Americans who ship their own vehicles to Europe. Or those who purchase cars on the economy once they arrive.
U.S. Army Europe keeps detailed figures on the number of cars it registers in Germany. As of Dec. 1, there were 111,558 vehicles in the system. Of that, active-duty Army personnel had the largest share at 53,568, followed by civilians with 34,132; active-duty Air Force with 20,892; active-duty Navy with 448; and others with 2,518. The command says there are about 60,000 registrations every year.
In the United Kingdom, Americans register their cars with the local government. In Italy, the Navy is in overall charge of vehicle registration. The total number of AFI registered vehicles — which includes some members from other NATO countries — is about 23,000.
The total number of families with second cars is a bit tougher to pin down. But, at least in Italy, those driving second cars are often easy to spot.
In Italy, Americans can have more than one vehicle, but second (or third) cars carry black license plates with white lettering, instead of primarily white with black lettering.
Aviano Air Base has about 4,200 active-duty airmen and there are about twice that number in the total American population. The base currently has about 1,800 black-plated vehicles registered.
If the ratio at Aviano were to hold true across Europe, there’d be about 60,000 second cars making trips to bases.
There are likely thousands of cars that are never registered by the military at all. When buying a vehicle on the local economy, some people choose to register it through the local government, even in countries such as Italy and Germany where the U.S. military controls the registration process.
Local national employees, who number in the hundreds at some bases, mostly drive vehicles registered in their respective countries.
And there are literally countless numbers of occasional visitors — such as delivery vehicles — who have business on bases.
Compiling all those numbers and coming up with a total would probably tax even someone with the mathematical skills of John Nash of “A Beautiful Mind” fame.
“It would be interesting to see what that figure came out to be,” Sonju said.
Of course, for those charged with creating spaces for all those vehicles, “interesting” might not be the operative word.
— Kent Harris