Naked City

Traffic Jam for I-35 Makeover

An apparently boring item on today's (Thursday) City Council agenda – a contract to manage public parking lots – has attracted unusual attention from neighbors, leaders, design professionals, and elected officials. At stake are the efforts of the I-35 Makeover Coalition to use revenues from the city-managed parking lots under the highway between Fifth and Eighth streets to help clean up the I-35 strip and improve connections between Downtown and the Eastside – revenues that could disappear if the contract with Ampco System Parking is approved.

The I-35 makeover idea has been around for nearly four years, since the city began charging for weekend nighttime parking on the lots. The lots actually belong to the Texas Department of Transportation – which has for 40 years allowed the city to use the land under an interlocal agreement – and the revenue collected has been duly kept separate and earmarked for improvements to TxDOT property. The coalition would like to see these funds – at last accounting, over $100,000 – spent according to a plan to be crafted by the community and approved by TxDOT for improved lighting, streetscapes, and other enhancements. So far, buy-in has been extensive. Supporters include both neighborhood planning teams (Central East Austin, chaired by this reporter, and East Cesar Chavez) and other neighbor groups on the east side of I-35, as well as the Downtown Austin Alliance, the city Downtown Commission, and Mayor Will Wynn and council members Raul Alvarez, Danny Thomas, and Brewster McCracken.

So if everyone thinks this is a great idea, where's the problem? Heretofore, the major difference has been between the coalition's community-driven approach and the apparent preference of the city's Building Services Department, which oversees the lots, for pursuing an in-house solution. The proposed contract, though, turns what could have been a philosophical difference into a practical one, since under its terms Houston-based Ampco would be paid substantially more to operate the I-35 lots than the city currently spends, thus reducing the revenue stream for any makeover project.

The Ampco contract, in fact, is for the management of not just the I-35 lots, but also the parking garage underneath the new City Hall and the surface parking at One Texas Center. In a memo to the City Council, leaders of the coalition claim that the contract would pay Ampco a significantly higher fee-per-space to manage the I-35 facility than the City Hall garage, even though the latter will clearly be more expensive to operate. "The numbers that are presented create a scenario where the I-35 lots subsidize the operation of the City Hall parking garage," reads the memo. "This is functionally the same as taking revenue from the TxDOT property to subsidize the General Fund. Not only does this violate the city's agreement with TxDOT, but ... it squanders any opportunity to transform the I-35 underpass."

The coalition is asking the council to separate I-35 from the overall Ampco contract, and notes that it has received letters of interest from local parking operators willing to provide their services at a deep discount to allow more funds to go to the makeover project. Makeover backers have also approached state Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos to get involved and have plans to meet with TxDOT officials in September to get a green light on the effort – if it still exists by then.

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Downtown, I-35 Makeover Coalition, AMPCO, Building Services Department, TxDOT

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