County approves double-dip fees at Hamilton Pool
Wednesday, March 30, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard
Crushing demand at Hamilton Pool Preserve has prompted a big change in policy, courtesy of the Travis County Commissioners Court. Starting in May, visitors to the park and its iconic pool will first have to go online to make a $10 reservation.
That fee will come with a $1 credit card surcharge and will also stack onto the preserve’s gate fee, which for a single vehicle is $15. For readers without a calculator, that means a trip out to the world-famous swimming hole could create a $26 splash in your bank account.
County staff justified the measure as a necessary reform to the current system, which is overwhelmed by both a surging population and the pool’s growing reputation around the globe. As it stands now, visitors are given first-come, first-served treatment when they drive out to the park, which is more than 30 miles west of downtown Austin. When the 75-space parking lot fills up, no one can come in until someone else drives out. That system has led to long lines of waiting vehicles backed up onto Hamilton Pool Road during the summer months.
“It saps our staff,” District Park Manager Dan Perry of Travis County Transportation and Natural Resources told the Austin Monitor after the court’s unanimous vote on Tuesday. “All our staff are working to park cars and fight the traffic battle, whereas they could be proactively enforcing park rules or giving additional tours to people.”
The new reservation fee will be required seasonally from May 1 through Sept. 30. Visitors will be able to choose between a morning reservation, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., and an afternoon reservation, from 2 to 6 p.m. If someone fails to show up, the slot will remain empty.
“If they don’t show up at all, then there are less people at the pool and the other visitors get a better experience,” Perry told the Monitor. He said he expects the new policy could actually lead to a slight decrease in annual visitors, something he said would be good for the park.
“Right now, it’s being loved to death,” said Perry. “By having a more controlled crowd, we’ll be able to proactively monitor the preserve and keep it in better shape.” Despite a potential drop in attendance, park revenues could go up as much as $127,175 thanks to the new fee.
Though the court ultimately granted unanimous approval to the policy, several commissioners still treated it with a measure of skepticism. Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, in whose Precinct 3 Hamilton Pool Preserve is located, worried that inadequately informed members of the public would still drive out to the park before making a reservation, only to be turned away.
Daugherty also raised hackles over the two-part billing system by which the reservation fee will be paid online while the entrance fee will still be collected at the gate and in cash or check only.
Timothy Speyrer of the Transportation and Natural Resources Parks Division told Daugherty that there are too many tiers right now to allow visitors to pay for the entrance fee online. Aside from the $15 single-day entrance fee, there is an annual pass, as well as discounts for seniors, veterans, bicyclists and pedestrians. “It made more sense right now to roll it out with just paying your $10 reservation fee upfront and then, when you come into the park, you pay the vehicle rate.”
Parks Division Director Charles Bergh told Daugherty that the existing gate fee must now remain restricted to analog currency but that staff is working to change that.
“We are moving in that direction,” he said. “The problem we have is some of these parks are remote, and the communication technology has not picked up or connected up to those areas.”
Commissioner Brigid Shea also raised concerns about educating visitors about the change in policy. She suggested, as a measure of last resort, putting up a temporary sign near the park to alert any unaware patrons that only those with prior reservations will get in.
County Judge Sarah Eckhardt agreed that the effort to inform the public with only a month before the policy takes effect will be an uphill battle. “This is another area where a public information office would be really, really handy so that the Parks Division doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel,” she said. “But we don’t have that yet.”
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