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Council to consider parking benefits districts for Austin neighborhoods

Thursday, September 15, 2011 by Kimberly Reeves

The specifics of parking benefits districts, which could provide needed amenities in high-traffic central city neighborhoods, are expected to head to Council next month.


The topic returned to the Urban Transportation Commission Tuesday night. Steve Grassfield, the program manager in the transportation department, said the parking benefit districts would be a first in the country. He added that they were intended to increase parking turnover in high-traffic neighborhoods. He also said they were pegged at a size big enough to generate excess revenue for improvements such as streetscapes, park benches and bike lots.


“The parking benefits district is created by metering on-street parking at the request of the neighborhood or a merchant association,” Grassfield emphasized. “This is not something the city goes and does.”


Under the proposal, inspired by a pilot project in West Campus, a neighborhood proposes the street parameters of the parking district. The threshold size is 96 spaces, which is intended to be a size that can generate sufficient revenue. Once city expenses are deducted, meter profits can go to sidewalks, curves, ramps and bike lanes. Each district will create its own improvement plan, Grassfield said.


The fact that the parking benefits district sounds a lot like the city’s Great Streets program is no coincidence, Grassfield said. Grassfield floated the idea of a parallel community-based program after he heard of women attending the University of Texas who felt unsafe to walk alone in the West Campus neighborhood after dark.


The pilot project, launched in 2006 with funding from a $43,000 EPA grant, was centered on 23rd Street, between Guadalupe to Rio Grande streets, as well as Rio Grande, where a large city project was taking place. Stakeholders agreed on the district’s streets, its improvements and even the 5-hour limit on meters.


After his presentation to UTC, Grassfield showed schematics of the area now. He noted the various improvements to the area in the last five years.


“You’ve got parking, big wide sidewalks. You’ve got lighting and benches,” Grassfield said. “You wouldn’t be afraid to walk down the street.”


Stakeholders were fairly positive about the particulars of the districts. John Lawler, representing the UT Student Government, said additional and broader notification of stakeholders, understanding that stakeholders often go beyond single-family homes. Stakeholders also suggested a 51-49 split in meter profits over and above the city’s maintenance and operations, with 51 percent going to improvements and 49 percent of the profits from the meter going to the city.


Mary Ingle, the former co-chair of CANPAC, spent three years working through the details of the benefit districts on the stakeholders group.


“We feel like we’ve come up with a very good ordinance,” said Ingle, joking that Assistant City Attorney Deborah Thomas was shocked to see, for once, a stakeholders group that agreed on an issue. “It was all done in a good spirit, but I must confess, parking is one of the most boring topics I’ve ever heard of.”


“We could give you a space on the taxicab committee, if you like,” Chair Dustin Lanier joked. The taxicab issue is one of UTC’s more contentious issues.


Former UTC member Tommy Eden asked that bike parking be prioritized in the districts. After the presentation, Grassfield admitted that the list of neighborhood requests would likely shake out into a two-tier system of priorities: those items, like bike racks, that the city would take care of under the capital improvement plan and those new amenities, above the basics, that meter profits will underwrite.


Under the proposed guidelines, the city could decline to grant a parking benefits district, especially if there is evidence meter revenues are not sufficient, Grassfield said. Once the Transportation Department reviews the plans, the district will be brought to the UTC for review, then go to City Council, Grassfield said.


Taking questions from commissioners, Grassfield said the parking districts could work in conjunction with neighborhood partnership programs. Program guidelines are intentionally broad to give neighborhoods greater latitude. The district will exist until all projects in the plan are complete, and those projects will be prioritized. City staff will meet annually with districts to review revenues and expenditures.


“Each year, we will sit down with the traffic benefit district,” Grassfield said. “It’s our responsibility to say, here’s your financials. Here are your revenues, here are your expenses, and here’s what’s left over.”

The Urban Transportation Commission gave its general blessing to the district.

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