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Travis County ponders paying employees to leave car at home

Wednesday, January 29, 2014 by Jimmy Maas

Travis County employees, Pct. 2 Commissioner Bruce Todd wants you to leave your car at home. And if the plan goes through, the county will pay you to do so.


In what turned into a long and wide-ranging discussion about transportation maladies throughout Travis County, commissioners heard proposals on ways to reduce congestion and parking concerns among its employees in downtown Austin.


The most controversial part of the plan is paying employees an additional $1,200 annually to opt out of a downtown parking slot. For a person making $40,000 a year, that’s a 3 percent raise in return for taking a bus, a train, carpooling, biking or stand-up paddle-boarding your way into downtown.


“That’s an economic incentive with demonstrated success at shifting transportation behavior,” said Mark Gilbert of the Planning and Budget Office to commissioners, “because it’s applying a value to something traditionally thought of as free.”


The impact, according to Gilbert, can be big. “Studies show anywhere from 10 to 30 percent reduction in single-occupant vehicles,” said Gilbert. “Huge increases in carpooling. It happens to really spur a lot of carpooling. I don’t know if that’s just families choosing to take one car downtown if they both work there, but you see a 60 percent increase. And you see a doubling in transit use, even if transit use is on the low side of the spectrum, it doubles.”


According to research by county staff, Travis County is the only urban county in Texas to provide free parking to its employees in the county’s central business district. Additionally, those assigned spots deny the county revenue for unoccupied spots in its two garages, a potential gain of $96,000 in revenue.


“It’s better than revenue neutral,” said Todd. “It makes money based on the estimates that have been made and that’s good for the taxpayers.”


Gilbert also told the commissioners there is an employee waiting list for assigned parking spaces in garages that are only at about 70 percent capacity.


“If you go with best practices,” said Gilbert, “which are not just zone, but zone for at least 20 percent overcapacity because of differential schedules, sick days, vacation days, all of that and you also aim for 90 to 95 percent occupancy, you would be talking about an additional 400 employees in those two garages (San Antonio St. and Granger) alone who could be parking.”


At last check by county staff, the waiting list for a spot had 318 employees.


But the taxable stipend was a sticking point for Pct. 3 Commissioner Gerald Daugherty. “Why should we spend taxpayer money to do that?” he asked. “I understand what we’re trying to do with single-occupant vehicle users, the whole overall traffic downtown. If we’re going to try to do something like that, as opposed to lopping that on the taxpayer, I think that what we ought to do is work with all the other entities and stagger start times.”


“Cashing out would be recaptured in a few different ways,” countered Gilbert. “One, we’re eliminating private leases. That saves us close to $100,000 a year if we’re able to do that. Second, being every space surplus, once that waiting list is gone, can be leased. It can be leased on the market for something close to $126 because that is the downtown average market rate.”


Switching to a zoned parking system away from assigned spots allows for vacation and sick days without sacrificing potential revenue, according to Gilbert.


A combination of zoned parking and the optional out for employees could eliminate the employee waiting list, provide more revenue even with the stipend and potentially reduce the number of single-occupancy vehicles in downtown Austin.


“If I’m going to sit here and vote for zone parking, then I’ll drive up and down the parking garage like everybody else,” said Daugherty. “Take away my second floor parking.”


“Personally, if the County Judge’s space is eliminated effective January 1, 2015, that would be fine by me,” said County Judge Sam Biscoe. That happens to be when his term ends.


The matter was tabled for a vote in two weeks.

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