On a day of tunes, the ins and outs of the Comcast parking lot

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By Sarah Rodman
Globe Staff / June 12, 2011

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Second in an occasional series that takes a look at what happens around, behind, and off the stage.

MANSFIELD — Rob Bruno whizzes through the Comcast Center parking lot in his golf cart, cheerfully sightseeing with a visitor. The 49-year-old is a vocational special ed teacher in Franklin by day, and the parking manager here at the 19,900 capacity summer concert amphitheater by night. With his easygoing but no-nonsense air, he’s sort of like the mayor of the lots. He chats with the local police on patrol. He calls out to the attendants on his team with a smile, offering words of praise for each one. He calls security, a separate staff, when necessary. He warmly greets patrons along the road. He typically works from 1 p.m. to 1 a.m. — and he loves it.

But like anyone else who has ever parked in the much-maligned system of 16 interconnected parking areas, Bruno knows it can be a test of patience exiting the venue.

General manager Bruce Montgomery characterizes the Comcast Center, named the top grossing amphitheater of the decade by Billboard magazine in 2010, as “middle of the pack’’ when it comes to outflow times in comparably sized venues, times that have improved over its 26-season lifespan as the lots and the lanes of Route 140 have been expanded. “I’ve found that people plan for it and make it work.’’

“On an average show you can almost tell how fast an ‘out’ will be,’’ says Bruno, who has been the manager for four summers. It works out to roughly six to seven minutes per 1,000 people, meaning a sellout could take as long as two hours to empty. “And that’s a conservative number. It’s not rocket science, it’s just if something goes wrong,’’ he says. “We can get them to the street, but if someone rear ends someone or you’ve got a drunk driver or something like that, it really slows it down quite a bit.’’

Getting concertgoers, staff, and talent in and out of the Comcast lots safely and efficiently may not be superficially complicated — since there’s only one way in and out — but with a capacity of 7,500 cars, there is a delicate calculus at play, and many moving parts. Aside from regular concertgoers, there are parents dropping off and picking up, party buses, limousines, those who’ve paid for premium parking, and in tonight’s case, a bus full of VIPs from the Red Sox among other variables.

Bruno approaches today’s task — an expected 17,000 fans coming to see country star Jason Aldean — with an easy calm.

The lot is already healthily packed with tailgaters by 5 p.m. on this sunny Sunday, making the inflow much faster than it would be on, say, a Friday night, when the after-work crowd arrives en masse. Traffic at the “split’’ — the crucial juncture where the three main lanes of incoming and outgoing traffic must converge and then split off into lots on either side of the entrance — is moving easily into the outer lots, where tents, grills, games of cornhole, and raucous line-dance parties are in full swing.

The roughly 70 or so attendants (crew chiefs in white shirts, crew members in maroon) waving people into spots are mainly teachers and students at local area high schools and colleges, putting their summer vacation time to good use, earning a few bucks, and listening to some of the evening’s entertainment during their breaks.

Haley Nevers, 19, a Mansfield native and Oberlin student, now in her fourth summer, loves her job. “I like my bosses a lot and it’s fun to be able to see the shows,’’ she says, citing Phish as a happy on-the-clock discovery. Mark Fairchild, a 24-year-old science teacher at Joseph Case High School loves the whole package. “It’s fun, you get to be outside, you get to meet very interesting people, co-workers and people in the parking lot,’’ he says. “Plus, it really taught me how to relate well to other people. I think it was good training to become a teacher because I had to learn patience and understanding.’’

Indeed, all of the lot attendants I spoke to said that they have had their share of (sometimes justifiably) impatient and perturbed drivers, wondering what the hold up is at the end of the night. A scan of Web reviews for the venue reveals plenty of complaints. A small group of patrons at a particular perennial show can sometimes be a handful. “Put a parrot on their head and some people forget their manners,’’ says Fairchild.

Overall, the driver-attendant dynamic is positive, he says. “Of the 20,000 people I’d say 99 percent of them are really nice. They’re not mad at you, traffic gets to people, and that’s fair.’’

Fairchild says things have improved in his five summers at the shed. “It’s definitely gotten a lot better. I don’t know if all the patrons would agree with us in that regard,’’ he says. “I remember the first year we’d often have to stay pretty late, 3 or 4 in the morning. We hardly ever go past 2 anymore, which doesn’t sound like a bragging point, but it is nice.’’

At 10:30, as Aldean is ripping into his first encore — a cover of Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive’’ — an exodus of fans envisioning a quick escape has already begun. For some, it will be. For others, not so much.

Bruno hands me a fluorescent yellow vest and a wand that resembles an orange mini-light saber and we head to the split where Fairchild and Evan Smith are running the show.

The temperature has plummeted and the split is now considerably more congested, loud, and confusing. Foot traffic criss-crosses with cars and attendants try to keep pedestrians — some of questionable sobriety — clear of the exit lanes.

Attendants estimate that clearing the lot tonight should take an hour and 42 minutes, but about 30 minutes after the show ends, there is a minor accident at the entrance to 495, where most of the traffic is headed. This slows the progress down to a crawl. It ends up taking 2 hours and 10 minutes before the “all clear’’ is declared.

Montgomery describes the lot as an hourglass, but for country music fan Winston Nichols, it was more of an hour-and-45-minute glass. “We got in the car at 10:53 and reached the exit at 12:38,’’ he says the next day. He was unaware of the accident and thinks it might’ve been wise for the attendants to spread the word. For veteran VIP parker Tony Botelho, the news is much better: “Three minutes,’’ he reports, and calls the extra $40 he paid for the premium spot “totally worth it’’ for the preferential treatment.

So which lane should patrons shoot for when approaching the Comcast Center lot?

“The one we ask them to get into,’’ says Fairchild with a smile, before advising the early arrivals to shoot for the left lane and latecomers aim for the right.

Although there appears to be no numbering system — e.g. 25 cars go from this lane and 25 from that — Fairchild says, “We try to balance it on the outflow so that everybody’s treated equally.’’

And if you arrive late and end up stationed in the distant, unpaved wilds of zones A, B, and C at the outer rim of the lot, get comfortable with the idea that you’re going to wait — and, warns Nichols, be prepared.

“Thank God we brought food,’’ he says, adding that overall it was “not so bad. I expected it and I didn’t have a time pressure but it is a long time to sit there just waiting.’’

Forty minutes after the end of the show, the VIP and carpool lots are pretty well empty, proving that either paying more or coming as a group has its benefits. The night is getting colder by the minute, and the exhaust is thick, but everyone remains upbeat, even as an impatient driver nudges the back of Smith’s knees with his bumper.

Bruno and I walk over to Lot 10 where the line has mysteriously stalled. He heads up to the last car in one line and tells them to back up and head the other way, adjusting the lanes as the night progresses. I join in directing people toward an empty lane until it too clogs up. “They’ll still get out faster that way,’’ Bruno promises.

At 12:50, Bruno gathers the troops and has Smith “call it’’ — or, pronounce the lot empty. Some stray tailgaters remain — to be dealt with by security and the police — and an envoy from AAA will swing through to make sure no one is stranded. Apart from that, it’s just employee vehicles hastily departing, and Aldean’s crew trucks idling.

Bruno admits that it was “not our best out,’’ citing the accident as the source of the delay. He seems legitimately pained by the length of the wait and understands people’s frustrations. He’s pleased overall with both his staff and the way the crowd behaved. “They weren’t beeping their horns, they weren’t agitated. That’s a good night.’’

Sarah Rodman can be reached at