New parking fees threaten Austin growth

Samian Quazi

After voting in early March to impose metered parking rules after 5:30 p.m., the Austin City Council has recently decided to reconsider extending the parking hours. Deeply unpopular among Austin motorists, the increased parking meter hours are a serious threat to the city’s diverse small-business community. A de facto tax that threatens to price Austinites out of their beloved downtown, the new fees only benefit the pockets of city government and crony private garages.

The city’s current metered parking policy charges motorists from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. on weekdays, with weekend parking free. Under the council’s changes, effective Sept. 6, parking hours will vary from downtown to the UT campus to the rest of the city. Downtown meter hours will be extended to midnight. The UT campus hours, along with the rest of the city, will be extended a half-hour to 6 p.m. In each case, Saturday parking would no longer be free, but would follow the respective weekday pay schedule.

The council’s decision effectively ignored the sentiments of the vast majority of Austinites. According to a city survey conducted in January, 87 percent of residents who value free parking would be willing to walk three or more blocks to get it, and 81 percent of this group said the new rules would make them less likely to visit downtown. Although Councilwomen Kathie Tovo and Laura Morrison have courageously stood against increased paid parking hours, the other council members have supported it.

The new parking rules threaten any reelection campaigns of the supportive council members in their blatant disregard for the overwhelming majority of city residents. Any ballot referendum on the proposal would have been resoundingly rejected by Austin voters. Residents understand the frustrations of trying to park in a city with an overly bureaucratic and labyrinth set of parking regulations. Unlike the council, they know that patrons worrying about a meter will spend less time (and money) downtown. As the Greek orator Pericles said, “Although only a few may originate a policy, we are all able to judge it.”

The diversity of businesses downtown and around the UT campus, a source of great pride for many residents, is seriously threatened by the new rules. High-end boutiques, restaurants and bars may be relatively
unaffected since their well-heeled clientele can brush off the added metered costs. But smaller businesses, the bulk of whom rely on working- and middle-class residents to stay afloat financially, will bear the brunt of the pain. Their customers would be less willing to spend with the same frequency. A downtown with establishments catering strictly to wealthy visitors, with the rest shuttered and boarded, is not inconceivable.

UT students could significantly scale back scheduled Saturday activities on campus if they have to worry about the meter as an added stressor. Students who are increasingly frustrated at the myriad and voluminous rules indicated at each parking spot could rely on a reprieve at the meters on weekends. Now they and visitors alike may reconsider attending a scheduled on-campus event if they have to keep coming back to feed the meter. Nobody enjoys walking several blocks back to their car in Texas heat.

The new regulations not only bilk motorists to expand city government but they also enrich private parking garage companies. The city would encourage aggravated motorists to park in one of the costly parking garages, and it has even proposed a (very small) price discount for those who park in a garage in the evenings. The city would also have to increase meter-related costs such as hiring new officers to serve as meter maids, electricity to run the meters, and replacement costs for meters. Don’t ask me if projected revenues cover the new hires’ pensions.

As one of America’s fastest-growing cities, Austin can ill afford to impose this new regulatory burden. The nightlife, buildings and UT campus all contribute substantially to the city’s allure. Visitors to our city don’t deserve memories of Austin as trigger-happy in distilling parking tickets. And our city businesses and residents don’t deserve a job-killing excuse to make our lives all the more stressful. The City Council should realign itself with its constituents and scrap the new parking rules.

Quazi is a nursing graduate student