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Planning Commission hears pros, cons of Megabus permit

Friday, April 11, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano

Austin Megabus, the low-cost intercity transit company, will be making a return stop at the Planning Commission next month in order to address the concerns of unhappy neighbors.

 

Megabus NE, LLC was seeking a Conditional Use Permit from the commission in order to change the use of their depot at 2002 Whitis Avenue. Currently, the site is a commercial parking lot, and the company needs a permit in order to change that designation to “transportation terminal.” From the Whitis location, riders can get to San Antonio, Houston and Dallas.

 

This designation does not mean that the company will be building a physical terminal. Megabus Regional Vice President Rich Funke explained that his company, which started in the Northeast, keeps costs low, in part, by operating without traditional stations. Though the model has plenty of supporters, it also had detractors at the Planning Commission Tuesday night.

 

Neighbors of the lot complained about noise, safety and pollution from the operation. And Winstead PC attorney David Staas spoke on behalf of Greyhound against the permit, on the grounds that the lot wasn’t a terminal at all, and shouldn’t be approved according to city code.

 

“It may be shocking for some to understand that in the 21st century you could have the bus operate without a facility. But this is very much becoming the trend and the model,” said Commissioner James Nortey. “I’m excited because this provides a very much-needed transportation option at a very affordable rate… I do sympathize with the nuisance issues, though.”

 

Those nuisance issues led commissioners to unanimously postpone the case to their May 13 meeting. They asked Megabus operators to come up with a plan addressing security on the site, limiting bus trips, landscaping, sheltering, bathroom facilities, and other concerns in the meantime.

 

This delay concerned Norton Rose Fulbright attorney Jerry Converse, who was representing Megabus. The location was first cited by the city in the spring of 2012, and Megabus is still working on bringing it into compliance.

 

“The company is under extreme pressure from Code Enforcement, and we do have concern that there would be continued citations issued, fines levied and court actions taken,” said Converse.

 

Megabus had already promised to change the site to eliminate buses backing up, which causes a lot of the noise that neighbors object to. Bus operators also agreed to have a peace officer on-site for all hours of operation.

 

Commissioner Brian Roark said that he was “not persuaded at all by Greyhound.” For him, the testimony of UT student Nicolette Greco, who lives directly next-door to the Megabus alley, was more convincing.

 

“Note to self, don’t have a sophomore in college come up and eloquently and effectively speak against your project,” said Roark.

 

In her presentation, Greco said that dust and fumes from the idling buses rendered her balcony useless. Even without the physical buses present, she said that bus customers stared at the residents of the condos. Worse, she said that her parking garage had become the de facto shelter and bathroom for customers because Megabus does not provide either on the site.

 

“It’s just very unsafe and very inconvenient for the people living there,” said Greco.

 

Greco explained that these conditions existed just outside her apartment window, 17 out of 24 hours.

 

Commissioners made it clear that something would have to change in order for Megabus to get its permit.

 

“I’m all over the map on this one,” said Commissioner Stephen Oliver. “I think Austin has the need for (Megabus) service. I think the UT area has a need for their service. The UT area is the appropriate location for their service. I think their site impact is… deplorable. I think it’s a terrible use of the site.”

 

“I think they need to invest more into this site to continue to use it,” said Oliver. “This is a design problem, not a zoning problem. I think it requires a design solution.”

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