As Virginia Tech prepares the complex process of reopening campus amid a pandemic, one concern is foremost on the minds of many Hokies: parking.

A university decision to start charging campus visitors for weekday parking has sparked a barrage of criticism on social media from students and alumni. The issue has bubbled up at a presidential town hall. And a petition seeking the policy’s reversal argues the change could strain public transportation usage at a time when people should limit their interactions.

“We want people to move toward public transit. But now is not a good time,” said Taren Woelk, a recent alumna who on Monday started the petition, which by Thursday had garnered more than 5,300 signatures. (Meanwhile, an online petition demanding Tech’s COVID-19 testing plan mandate students and staff receive a negative result before returning to campus has just over 300 signatures.)

Woelk, a 22-year-old from Richmond who used to work as a bus driver in Blacksburg, said she interpreted the change as the latest in a series of cost increases to students.

“Virginia Tech has just slowly been getting more outrageous with how they treat their student population,” she said. “It seems just more like a money grab than something that was consciously thought out by the administration.”

Starting this fall, campus visitors and others without parking passes must pay to park on university lots 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday. A daily visitor permit will cost $6, while hourly costs for meters vary.

Many residential students use campus lots after normal business hours for clubs or work, Woelk said. Blacksburg residents, too, often use campus parking for university events and errands downtown.

Tech made the change “to more effectively manage parking for the growing number of permit holders who engage in university activities after 5 p.m.,” spokesman Mark Owczarski said in an email.

“In previous years, only student and employee permit holders who parked a vehicle on campus between 7 a.m. and 5 p.m. provided the revenue to support parking operations at the university while visitors and non-permit holders were able to park free of charge during the day and in the evenings,” he wrote. “By charging all those who utilize parking services on campus, regardless of what time of day, Virginia Tech will actually be better able to keep parking costs down for all users.”

As a so-called auxiliary service, Tech’s parking division must be financially self-sufficient, per state law, according to Owczarski. It is not funded by tuition or fees not related to parking.

Yet the university could not say Thursday whether the change would actually bring in revenue.

“We do not know whether this change will generate more revenue for parking services or not,” Owczarski wrote. “Should additional revenue be generated, it will be reinvested to maintain and improve parking operations and will be used to hold future user fees down.”

A residential undergraduate student parking pass for a year cost $450 or $256 for a semester, which has increased from $399 and $222, respectively, from the 2017-18 academic year.

Owczarski said the university works hard to keep parking fees as low as possible.

“Among colleges in Virginia, as well as those across the U.S., overall parking fees at Virginia Tech are among the lowest (easily among the bottom 25th percentile),” he said.

Asked for a source for that information, Owczarski said, “I don’t have access to data relative to parking permit costs at universities across the commonwealth or the nation. That said, I stand behind my earlier comment.”

While Tech’s budgets have taken a hit from the pandemic, Owczarski did not directly respond to a question about whether the new policy was implemented because of that.

He pointed to the fact that Tech’s parking policy is guided by a master plan, which was last updated in 2016. That master plan notes, “Unlike at many peer institutions, Virginia Tech’s visitor parking permits are free and are typically picked up at the Visitor Center.”

The plan recommends the university begin charging for visitor parking, noting among the “major drawbacks with the current Visitor parking permit system” the fact that “Parking is free which can lead to abuse of Visitor permits and a financially unsustainable program.”

The new change will lead to more parking enforcement.

“The university will monitor its parking areas an additional five hours, five days a week given this change,” Owczarski said. “That will take additional resources.”

Initially, the university announced the policy would be in effect on the weekends as well, which prompted an uproar. It later acknowledged that was not accurate.

“It was a communications error, pure and simple, and we apologize for making it,” Owczarski said.

But many remain unhappy, and insist the change will strain public transportation.

On Thursday, Blacksburg Transit announced new rider limits to take effect Aug. 9. Large buses, which can carry 107 people, will be capped at 75, and smaller buses that usually could carry 80 people, will be capped at 55.

“At these levels it is expected that ridership demand can be reasonably accommodated and still provide enough room on the bus for some separation among passengers,” the agency said.

Keri Friedman, a rising 21-year-old senior from Long Island, said they would look into getting a visitor pass for times they need to be on campus. But Friedman may try to find free parking farther away, then take the bus from there.

Friedman said they moved to Christiansburg after being priced out of a Blacksburg apartment and views the new policy as another burden on students and other community members.

“They love to emphasize this whole Ut Prosim thing, ‘That I May Serve,’ but it seems like their wallets are the only ones being served right now,” said Friedman, referring to Tech’s motto.

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