UNIVERSITY PARK — Penn State may not have had a record-breaking season on the football field, but Mother Nature had a record-breaking year on the university campus.
And that created a major parking headache.
“We’ve broken precipitation records for the summer, fall and for the year. As of Dec. 2, we had 59.87 inches. The old record was 59.30 inches,” Jeff Nelson, Penn State spokesman, said.
The university handles in excess of 20,000 vehicles for a typical home game with the vast majority of those vehicles parking in grass lots, Nelson said.
The record rainfall led Penn State officials to close all grass parking lots for the Nov. 24 game with Maryland, most of them for the Nov. 10 game with Wisconsin and some of the lots for two other games.
Nelson said the Wisconsin and Maryland games were the first time Penn State had to close all of the lots since the Michigan State game in 2014.
Some grass lots were closed for one game in 2017, two games in 2016 and one game in 2015, he added.
That’s a total of nine games over the past five years — an average of almost two per season — and some Penn State fans, who pay handsomely to secure their parking spaces, are upset at the inconvenience.
“There are folks that are not happy and understandably so. There was some impact with four out of seven games,” Nelson said. “We don’t like it, either.”
Fans are frustrated
Many fans have voiced their displeasure on the message boards of various websites devoted to the coverage of Penn State sports, such as Lions 247 with Fight On State.
“There was a measure of frustration that the university was unprepared for such problems, and it led to major headaches for people,” Mark Brennan, editor and publisher, said. “As you might imagine, fans kind of understood the first time it happened this season. But they became more frustrated with each subsequent set of closures.
“The second was a very understandable sense of anger from fans who prepaid for parking but were unable to access their spots, and then were not given immediate refunds. Penn State has gone out of its way to ‘strongly advise’ fans to buy their parking passes in advance, and some people felt penalized — and in some cases, ripped off — for doing so.”
Rob Sykes of Harrisburg is part of a group that has seven parking spots in a grassy area near Medlar Field at Lubrano Park.
Sykes, 62, has been attending Penn State home games since he was 6 years old, and he said tailgating is as important to him as the game.
“This year, I bought a custom conversion van,” he said. “We couldn’t use that. For half the games, we all sat at home and watched it on TV. I don’t want to just drive up for the game, I want to make it a day-long experience, including the tailgating. The university may be missing the point. They underestimate the tailgating part of the experience for people who have been doing it for years. They need to formulate a committee to find out a way to try to address the situation so it doesn’t remain a situation. I may just go up when the weather is nice and buy a ticket.”
Paving ‘not an option’
A big problem is that Penn State utilizes its intramural fields for parking.
“The two earlier games, Lot 12 and the Brown lot were closed,” Nelson said. “They are intramural fields. We don’t want cars ripping up those fields being used by our students.”
“There is some frustration from people who don’t understand they need to protect the intramural fields,” said Nate Bauer, editor of Blue White Illustrated, which also has received complaints.
Penn State just can’t pave the grass fields because it doesn’t technically own them.
“We are using a lot of land owned by the College of Agriculture,” Nelson said. “It is important to understand we just can’t pave them. They are not properties controlled by (intercollegiate athletics). We can’t just pave these areas as much as we would like to have more paved parking available. ICA doesn’t control those areas. It is not an option.”
The facilities master plan unveiled in March 2017 includes a “parking structure west of Beaver Stadium.”
“Where does it fall on the list of priorities? Probably not high,” Bauer said. “They won’t make that decision based on one season. If it happens year after year, they will bump it up on the list. It is not priority number one.”
“It would help some, but it would not alleviate the issue entirely,” Nelson said.
Closing the lots causes logistical nightmares for the university as well as the fans.
“When these lots are closed, we have arranged free shuttle from Innovation Park to the stadium for some of the games,” Nelson said. “When we close lots where we know who is assigned to park in those lots, the Nittany Lion Club will email those fans to let them know what their specific alternate parking lot is, or other options for parking, depending on severity of the lot closures.”
He said it costs intercollegiate athletics additional money to provide the shuttle buses.
“We had to rent over 50 buses, we set up six shuttle routes with multiple buses for each of the routes and lots. We had to line up alternate lots, needed to provide portable lighting, Porta-Potties at all locations and personnel. We spent well over six figures to provide shuttle service for the last two games,” Nelson said.
Nelson said Penn State is always trying to make things better for its fans.
For example, the university made a change to its shuttle plans between the Wisconsin and Maryland games.
“A lot of folks parked at the Nittany Mall and at the Grange Park,” Nelson said. “For Wisconsin, we didn’t have enough buses for the two routes. We put more buses on those routes so it would move in a more timely manner.”
In an effort to address traffic and parking challenges, Penn State announced last week it will implement changes for traffic and parking for the 2019 football season.
This will include the creation of four traffic zones and designating game-day parking for general parking lots. Fans are advised that the names or numbers of some parking lots will change. Penn State will continue to offer three tiers of parking: reserved, preferred and general.
Fans will be required to enter the game day traffic pattern and travel to their specific Beaver Stadium lot from one of four traffic zones: north, south, east and west. All parking permits will have zone and lot specific driving direction instructions.
“This is more about traffic flow, trying to ease congestion and pedestrian safety,” Nelson said. “One of the main results of this is at the intersection of Park Avenue and Fox Hollow Road. There will no longer be traffic flowing through that intersection. That is a major step from a safety perspective.”
Press box pipes freeze
Another weather-related issue popped up for the Maryland game — the press box restrooms were not usable for a good portion of the game.
Beaver Stadium has exposed pipes. When temperatures drop below freezing late in the season, there is a chance of having some frozen pipes, Nelson said.
“A frozen water line to the press box was able to be thawed by the start of the fourth quarter, and the press box restrooms were available for the fourth quarter and the two-to-four hours that the vast majority of the media needed to file their stories,” Nelson said. “I give a lot of credit to the office of physical plant, which worked before and during the game. I’ve been at Penn State for 25 years, and this is the first time the restrooms didn’t work due to a frozen water line.”
Despite that inconvenience, renovations to the press box likely won’t happen soon.
“It is part of the facilities master plan project down the road,” Nelson said. “Beaver Stadium is not one of the projects identified as one of the five priorities.”
Mirror Staff Writer Walt Frank is at 946-7467.