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County postpones parking decision again

Friday, August 22, 2014 by Beth Cortez-Neavel

Travis County Commissioners once again postponed a decision on the new county employee parking plan, to the chagrin of the employee parking committee Tuesday.

In March, commissioners approved the expansion of free zoned county employee parking in all county-approved parking facilities and an optional commuter benefits program. The parking committee, made up of four county employees, has appeared in court two more times to iron out the details and change language in the County Code to reflect the new programs. Last week, commissioners postponed making a decision until the parking committee received more employee input.

The new zoned employee parking is still in the early stages of rolling out, said Mark Gilbert, a county employee with the Planning and Budget Office and a member of the parking committee.

The Commute Options Benefit Program is tied to an Oct. 1 deadline, unless commissioners vote to extend it at the voting session in two weeks.

The new zoned parking would apply to all facilities in the Central Business District, or downtown Austin from 3rd Street to Martin Luther King Boulevard, north to south, and from Congress Avenue to Lamar Boulevard.

Travis County would be the only urban Texas county to provide free parking for the majority of its employees.

The parking committee stated in a report that the county parking infrastructure is currently underused. A few garages are on average 30 to 35 percent vacant during the day. There are an average of 400 vacant spaces in the county’s downtown parking garages and lots. Yet at the same time, there are 320 or so county employees on a waitlist for parking spaces, out of 2,100 who work in the downtown area in total.

Most employees are forced to spend more than $150 per month to purchase parking privately, even though the county has space to accommodate them.

Under the plan, county employees who currently have assigned parking will transition to zoned areas within the same garage or parking lots. They will get a hangtag for one of three zones within the garage or lot. There will be one zone for elected officials, a general employee zone and a business zone for county contractors, county employees who do not work in the Central Business District but are in the area on official business, county-owned vehicles and fleet services, and visiting members of the public.

Accessible parking under the Americans With Disabilities Act will also be provided.

The downtown area currently includes eight county-owned parking facilities. Pending the zoning plan approval, employees will be issued hangtags in September and wait-listed employees will slowly be allocated parking space where additional space is available.

Some employees, including Pct. 4 Commissioner Margaret Gomez, are pushing for a fourth zone, a “Loyalty” zone.

“First is some employees who have special needs and should receive special care,” she said. “Secondly is that some employees are champions and should be rewarded for being so. And the third is that all employees are valuable and should not be thrown into the mix and be told to fend for themselves.”

The Loyalty zone would set aside extra parking spaces to accommodate employees who were promised to always have allocated parking back in 2011. But Gilbert said this would derail current plans and ultimately reduce the number of available parking spots by more than 100, which would hinder the process of getting employees off the waitlist.

The implementation of the Commute Options Benefit Program is tied to the reduction of employees on the parking waitlist. Gilbert asked commissioners Tuesday to delay the program until after the majority of the zoned parking expansion is rolled out and re-evaluated sometime in the 2015 Fiscal Year.

The program would allow county employees to forgo access to county parking for a monthly benefit of $100 on their paycheck. The planning committee thinks this would promote alternative transportation and allow future excess parking spaces to be leased out to cover the cost of the added benefit.

But the estimated total fiscal impact would be $33,000 to $46,000 per month until there is a surplus of parking spaces that can be allocated for private lease at market rates to recover program costs. This is not possible until a majority of the employees on the county waitlist have been allocated zoned parking.

None of that money is available in the current budget or 2015 FY preliminary budget. Both Pct. 3 Commissioner Gerald Daugherty and Pct. 1 Commissioner Ron Davis balked at the idea of providing $100 more per employee for opting out of free parking.

County Judge Samuel Biscoe said the court was divided and would like to bring the parking committee back in two weeks to vote on the Commute Options Benefit Program and on the different zones.

“I’m happy to bring it back in two weeks, but this is getting ridiculous. This is beyond ridiculous,” Daugherty said. “We need to send a message that we are the only urban county that gives you free parking. I, for the life of me, cannot understand why people aren’t happy with the fact that they have free parking.”

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