The city lets local elected officials park for free at Houston's two major airports - and many of them take full advantage, records show.
More than 100 state and federal lawmakers, city officials and some other dignitaries have had about $100,000 in parking fees waived at Hobby and Bush Intercontinental airports since 2004, according to records obtained by the Houston Chronicle.
Airport officials defend what they call a "courtesy" program, which has been in place since the 1980s, saying it's only intended for official travel. They say it carries no cost, other than some lost revenue, and helps foster good working relationships with officials whose jobs benefit the region.
"You're allowing an individual that, through their job function, has a role to play in the future of the airports, the future of the city, and the future of the regional economy to receive a benefit for those efforts," said Richard Fernandez, an Airport Department spokesman, who said foreign diplomats and some military veterans also get free parking.
The airports give elected officials a card they present upon leaving the garage to parking employees, who note each transaction. The Chronicle examined those notations on documents obtained under the Texas Public Information Act. They record the 1,700 instances in which officials used the cards.
The analysis found:
Local members of Congress and the state Legislature, who make regular trips to Houston from their jobs in Washington and Austin, used the free parking most frequently. City Council members have used it on occasion. Mayor Bill White, who has a police driver for security, has never used the service.
Republican U.S. Reps. John Culberson, Kevin Brady and Ron Paul led the list in terms of the value of the parking, each saving around $7,000 during the period.
In more than 100 cases, officials left vehicles in airport garages for more than a week, and several parked for more than a month. The city in August changed its policy, and airport officials say they now charge elected officials for parking after seven consecutive days. The Chronicle's review, however, found at least a dozen instances since then in which officials got free parking for longer stays.
State Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, on two occasions left a vehicle in a garage at Hobby for more than a month. That would have cost regular customers about $1,000, according to the records.
Coleman said that in one instance, he left his Ford Mustang at the airport because the convertible top was broken, and he didn't want the vehicle to be damaged.
He keeps vehicles at airports in Austin and Houston - parked far from garage doors, he said, to save space for paying customers - so that his staff doesn't have to drive him around. He'd rather they spend time on constituents, he said.
Coleman, who had at least 70 parking waivers, said he flies between Houston and Austin each weekend during legislative sessions.
"This is work. We're not getting on a plane to go on vacation. We're using the airport to go back and forth to go to work," he said. "I never looked at this as a cash benefit."
Other officials interviewed about their use of the program also defended it. Culberson, for example, disputed that his parking was "free."
"On any business trip, the business always pays for parking, whether it is at the airport, or a parking garage downtown," he said. "My employers are the taxpayers, and my employers are paying for my parking when I'm on official business."
Houston isn't the only city to offer such a perk.
At Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, various federal, state and local elected officials get parking passes on request, said airport spokesman David Magana.
At San Antonio International Airport, the mayor, City Council and county officials get free parking, as do lawmakers.
And, in Austin, free parking extends to all legislators and their spouses and to state officials and judges, said airport spokesman Jim Halbrook.
Elected leaders will have to reapply for free privilege after abuse concerns.
Austin grants free airport parking - even in the $18-a-night garage - to more than 200 state and local officials and their spouses.
The city's Commerce Department last month told the 35 members of Philadelphia's consular corps that they could no longer park free in garages at Philadelphia International Airport.
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