Suits or Citizens: Who Gets the Prime Parking?

There were two major issues before the Airport Advisory Board (AAB) on February 25: whether the parking garage at Bergstrom should be expanded, and whether rental car companies should be given prime space in the garage. Some board members argued that rental car lots should be located at more remote sites connected to the terminal by shuttles, thereby freeing up all the nearby garage space for short-term parking for local citizens meeting arriving passengers. But the idea brought howls of protest from city and airport staff.

Director of Aviation Charles Gates said that making things easy for businessmen (who use a large percentage of rental cars) helps the local economy. A Motorola representative testified that his plant generates 30,000 airport trips a year, about half of them involving rental cars. Chamber of Commerce representative Bruce Byron described how Austin's current high-tech economic growth is moving from research and development to software. The next stage, declared Byron reverently, will be the increasing selection of Austin for location of corporate headquarters. Can we allow visiting CEOs and other "dignitaries" to be shuttled to remote lots for their rental cars, Byron wanted to know.

However, AAB chair Bob Binder appeared to be less impressed by the potential indignities that the high priests of business might have to suffer. He noted that other airports shuttle passengers to rental car lots, and that, anyhow, most Austin citizens will have to be shuttled between remote parking and the terminal. Furthermore, said Binder, short term parking fees would earn triple the revenue produced by rental car companies.

But Assistant City Manager Joe Lessard came back with the argument that the first few years of short term parking demand at Bergstrom won't generate enough revenue to pay off the $25 million needed to build the parking garage. On the other hand, rental car user fees of $1 to $1.75 per car per day would generate enough money in 10 years to pay for the garage expansion, and rental car companies could always be tossed out of the garage later, leaving Austinites with an extra 1,000 short term parking slots at no additional construction cost.

Of course, this argument left city staff in the awkward position of simultaneously saying that the parking garage needs to be expanded because of the need for more short term spaces, while denying that the demand for short term spaces is sufficient to fund the garage expansion. Still, the board bought the city's argument, approving both parking garage expansion and rental car occupancy, under the conditions that rental car companies agree to pay for building their share of garage amenities, and that they be given space in the garage only under a 10-year contract. AAB chair Binder says the board voted for because it provided a "financial mechanism" to pay for the expansion. "We will probably need additional space in 2005 or 2010, and it's better to pay for it now through the rental car agencies than through a bond issue," Binder says.

Next, AAB members hashed out whether the bottom floor of the garage, which is on the same level as the terminal baggage claim area, should be reserved entirely for rental cars as airport staff proposes. Under the city proposal, said Binder, "If you're meeting someone at the airport, you can't park on the same level as the baggage claim. I don't think Austin citizens are going to like that." In spite of airport staff protests that only the bottom floor of the garage will work for rental cars because of traffic conflicts with private cars, the board voted 4-3 to recommend reserving the first floor for short-term parking. "I think they can find a way to do it," said Binder. "Austin citizens deserve the premium spots."

At the March 5 work session, council voted

on first reading to approve the Airport Advisory Board's (AAB) recommendation that the parking garage be almost doubled in size. However, the council did not stipulate what was a key component in the AAB's recommendation -- that rental car companies would be allowed only a 10-year lease after the airport opens, after which time they could be kicked out into more remote parking if the garage was filling up. "That condition was very important to us on the board," Binder says. "Some of us wouldn't have recommended the expansion without it." All of the councilmembers currently running for reelection -- Eric Mitchell, Gus Garcia, and Ronney Reynolds -- joined Mayor Bruce Todd in voting for the expansion. Beverly Griffith and Jackie Goodman voted against, and Daryl Slusher abstained.

As for the issue of who gets the first floor -- the citizens or the suits -- Garcia asked to hold off the vote on that until the next work session on March 19. Anyone interested in making suggestions for construction of the new airport is encouraged to call AAB chair Bob Binder at 474-1515, or write him at P.O. Box 1046, Austin, TX 78767. -- N.E.

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