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.
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.
Mayor Wynn: "Why not explore a sale or a long-term lease that could net us hundreds of millions of dollars upfront that we could put toward any number of community needs, such as transportation?"
Elected leaders will have to reapply for free privilege after abuse concerns.
The county acted because of a question about whether parking perks count as an unlawful gift under a lobbying law passed last year.