Section: MAIN,  Page: A1

Date: Thursday, April 22, 1999

Gov. George Pataki and Mayor Jerry Jennings on Wednesday presided over the groundbreaking for a long-awaited 2,300-space parking garage adjacent the Empire State Plaza, which they hope will help alleviate Albany's parking crunch. The $33 million, five-level garage is being built by the state Office of General Services at the intersection of Madison Avenue and Eagle Street as part of the Albany Plan -- a joint city-state venture to revitalize downtown. It will be reserved entirely for state workers, an estimated 9,000 of whom are now jockeying with Albany residents for a limited number of parking spaces on city streets.

``This will make a major dent in a problem we've been experiencing for decades,'' Jennings said. ``It is one piece of the puzzle relative to parking.''

What will formally be known as the Empire State Plaza East Parking Garage will be located on a six-acre parcel between Philip and Eagle streets. Part of the site is now a paved surface lot where approximately 330 state employees park.

Pataki on Wednesday touted the garage as ``an important component of my effort to redevelop the Empire State's Capital City.''

``The construction of the new parking garage will make it easier than ever for residents of the Capital Region and all New Yorkers to enjoy everything Albany has to offer,'' the governor said.

To accommodate the increased traffic the new parking garage will bring, the state Department of Transportation plans to spend approximately $7 million to widen portions of ramps leading from the South Mall Arterial to Interstate 787. The DOT project will coincide with construction of the garage, officials said. Both projects are scheduled to be completed in September 2000.

Wednesday's groundbreaking was the first piece of good news in a string of parking-related disappointments for the Jennings administration. Earlier this month, pressured by powerful state employees unions that oppose permit parking in Albany, state lawmakers refused to consider a bill that would allow the Common Council to enact such a system citywide.

Under the state Vehicle and Traffic law, the Legislature must sign off on any municipality's permit-parking system. At least four communities in New York state have successfully enacted such systems over the years, while Albany's request to do the same has been routinely rejected.

Late last year, the Common Council approved a bill creating a parking system that would charge residents $15 and non-residents $785 annually to park on city streets in certain neighborhoods. The system was based on one in East Hampton, Suffolk County, that had withstood legal challenges.

The unions -- the Civil Service Employees Association and the Public Employees Federation -- sued the city almost immediately after Jennings signed the permit-parking bill into law Dec. 31. Union officials claimed the plan discriminated against their members who were not Albany residents.

On Feb. 27, Supreme Court Justice Harold Hughes sided with the unions and struck down Albany's system. Jennings has said he plans to appeal Hughes' decision.

On Wednesday, union leaders cautiously cheered the start of construction on the new Eagle Street garage.

``This is a step in the right direction, but it's not the final step,'' said CSEA spokesman Dan Campbell. ``Until all of our members' parking problems are addressed, we will continue to push for more garages, an improved mass transit system and improvements in the whole system of parking that exists in Albany.''

PEF President Roger Benson restated his position that the union would be willing to discuss the creation of a ``limited'' permit-parking plan once the new garage is complete. Such a plan would require a one-for-one policy, Benson said -- for every space within the garage that is designated for a PEF member, a space on Albany's streets could be freed up for permit parking.

``Our position has been the same for two years now,'' Benson said. ``We need to replace (on-street) parking spaces with garages. And when that happens, we would certainly consider a limited parking permit plan.''

It is yet unclear which state employees will be able to park in the new garage once it is completed and how much they will pay to do so. These details will be worked out in negotiations between the unions and the state, Benson said.