For the A-list, Austin's Airport Parking is Free

Austin City Council members have to put up with going through airport security, but at least they get to park free on the way to the terminal.

Council members are not alone in this, however. The City of Austin grants free airport parking - even in the $18-a-night garage - to more than 200 state and local officials and their spouses, including the governor and six other statewide elected officials, every member of the Legislature, the Texas secretary of state and members of both of Texas' highest courts. The council and Austin City Manager Toby Futrell likewise park free at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, but their spouses don't have the privilege.

The policy, at least as it relates to the Legislature, goes back more than a decade. Asked how much revenue the city might have forgiven over the years, airport spokesman Jim Halbrook said the city has never added it up or done any sort of audit, and that compiling the figures might takes weeks. City Council members and mayor-turned-state-senator Kirk Watson defend the giveaways for state officials as both good politics and good manners.

"Relationships are important," said Watson, a Democrat and freshman senator who during his days as mayor pushed to repair the city's image with the Legislature and quell so-called Austin-bashing by its 181 members. "But I don't think that's your ultimate goal. We have a special benefit as the capital city, and a corresponding special responsibility."

Austin Mayor Will Wynn, in letters to legislators and the statewide officials earlier this month, outlined a list of benefits the city extends to the officials. Aside from the free airport parking - which the city's policy confines to traveling on state business but has no way of policing - the legislators and statewide officials (and their spouses) can park free at City of Austin parking meters, swim for nothing at city pools and have their green fees waived at city golf courses.

Although Wynn signed the letter to legislators, Halbrook said the decision to offer the benefits was made by city staff and did not come before the council for a vote. Official privileges have been in the news in recent days, with reports that Austin City Council Member Jennifer Kim asked that as a council member she be allowed to get through airport security without first obtaining an airline boarding pass.

It's not clear just what benefit, if any, the city derives from dispensing these favors. The gratis airport parking goes back at least to January 1995, when former state Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos of Austin made a small show on the Senate floor of giving his colleagues free parking passes for Robert Mueller Municipal Airport. What followed for four months was a thorough thumping of Austin, as the Legislature passed laws to counter actions by the City Council.

"Perhaps it worked better later on," Austin City Council Member Betty Dunkerley said.

The Legislature has backed off Austin-bashing in the last few sessions, though that might have more to do with amended official actions and behavior by Austin officials than with saving lawmakers a few bucks or giving dips in Barton Springs.

"The goodies don't register with me," said state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, who said that, like many legislators who live within two to three hours of Austin, he drives to and from his home and does not use the free airport parking. And Whitmire, like all legislators, has free parking on the Capitol grounds.

"A working relationship is what matters," Whitmire said.

Tom "Smitty" Smith, executive director of Public Citizen's Texas office, said the favors are relics from Austin's dark days as a legislative pinata and probably have little or no effect. But he said that if the city is going to stop the practice, it would be better to wait until next session to avoid hurt feelings.

The city also offers the free airport parking to the nine-member Texas Supreme Court and the nine-member Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the state's highest court for criminal cases. Virtually all of those justices live in the Austin area, and they report to work on the Capitol grounds. The Supreme Court from time to time makes decisions on civil cases to which the City of Austin is a party.

Council Member Brewster McCracken said that, at least for the council and city manager, the VIP passes for airport parking are mostly an accounting shortcut. He and the other officials, if they paid the fees up-front, would be able to charge them to their expense accounts on the back end and be reimbursed, he said. McCracken said he has not used and would not use the pass for personal travel.

He said council members, like the state officials, can park free at City of Austin meters. That exemption does not apply to no-parking or commercial zones or to spots reserved for people with disabilities, nor does it apply to meters near the Capitol under state control or on University of Texas property.

"I did not know they got free golf and swimming," McCracken said of the state officials. "I'm a little bit envious."

Parking revenue at the airport is no small matter to the city's Aviation Department. Unlike fees charged to the airlines, which by federal law must be set at a level no higher than the expense of running the airport, parking and terminal concessions are profit centers for the airport. That money, aside from contributing to operations costs, can also be saved and used for airport improvements and expansion. But in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, that revenue dipped along with air travel and hurt the airport's fiscal picture.

So airport officials in early 2002 decided to end free parking for people with disabilities, a change that the airport estimated at the time would bring in an additional $400,000 a year on overall parking revenue of about $21 million. Parking revenue in 2006 was about $20 million, Halbrook said.

The airport, as required by state law, still provides free parking for cars with license plates identifying the owner as a disabled veteran, Congressional Medal of Honor winner, former prisoner of war, Pearl Harbor survivor, or Purple Heart recipient. Aviation Department employees who work in the terminal park for free in the remote G lot. Airline and private company employees, however, have to pay to park.

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