Austin to consider building, owning parking garages

McCracken said new transit agency would create needed parking and make money for city.
After years of discussion, the Austin City Council is set to decide today whether it will enter the parking business.

Council Member Brewster McCracken is proposing that the city create the Austin Parking Enterprise, which would build, own and operate new parking garages and possibly acquire existing parking facilities.

"As downtown redevelops, we are losing publicly available parking," McCracken said. "This (proposal) provides a mechanism for an expansion of publicly available parking downtown at the same time as we have new development."

The parking enterprise could also build and operate garages on South Congress Avenue, in the Gateway/North Burnet area and in transit-oriented developments near future commuter rail stops, he said.

"At a lot of our rail stops, there are currently no plans to have any parking at all," McCracken said. "This parking enterprise provides a mechanism where we will be able to have plenty of public parking at all the rail stops."

The agency would be intended to provide a long-term funding source for the expansion of the city's trails and transit systems. The money would come directly from revenue generated by the garages and through state and federal grants that are available only to transit agencies.

It would probably be years before the agency's parking garages could generate enough revenue to pay off the debt used to build them and provide significant money for trails or transit.

Parking garages are considered a financial drain for private developers, who are reluctant to expand them beyond what's necessary to serve their own projects.

But McCracken believes they could be financially beneficial for the city because it could lower construction costs by issuing low-interest debt and wouldn't have to pay property taxes on the finished product. The city also would be willing to accept lower profit margins than private developers.

The parking enterprise could not use eminent domain to take over private garages, under McCracken's proposal.

Austin already has agreed to build and own a 315-space parking garage at the Seaholm Power Plant property downtown as part of a public-private partnership that will redevelop the plant into condominiums, restaurants, shops, offices and a hotel. Revenue from that garage will be diverted to pay for public improvements in the Seaholm district, but the garage could be operated by the parking enterprise.

McCracken's proposal, co-sponsored by Sheryl Cole, calls for the city manager to look into the feasibility of a parking agency taking over existing city-owned parking facilities, including meters, garages and surface lots.

None of those city properties generate a lot of money today.

Parking meters generate about $2.5 million annually. Of that, about $500,000 is devoted to the Great Streets program, and the remainder is used to pay for street maintenance.

The 725-space City Hall garage just began charging for parking last summer. The garage is estimated to clear about $50,000 annually after operational expenses, but that money is scheduled to be used to reimburse the city for $300,000 in operational expenses incurred before the garage began charging.

McCracken believes consolidating all of the city's parking operations under one roof makes sense and would result in the city making more money.

The parking agency could begin charging for its now-free lots at One Texas Center and Austin Energy at night and on weekends, for example. It could also get more money out of its parking meters, he argues, by providing meter card kiosks.

The agency would not take over parking lots and garages at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.

Council Member Lee Leffingwell said he is supportive of creating a parking agency but is concerned that it would take money away from other city services and projects if it were to take over existing facilities.
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