Category Archives: General Affordability Updates

Affordability Proposals That Will Really Make A Difference

By Bill Oakey – March 1, 2017

Even though it is commonly accepted that Austin has a serious affordability problem, there are some who do not believe City officials are taking the matter seriously. A recent newspaper article even used the word “affordability” with quotation marks around it. I believe it is well past time to get very serious about it and permanently remove the quotation marks.

Here is a set of proposals that will make a real difference in the lives of many Austinites:

1. Work With Area Businesses to Raise the Minimum Wage

The City does not have the legal authority to require businesses to raise the minimum wage. But they could certainly call business leaders together and work to make it happen. In January, 19 states raised their minimum wage. Major cities, such as St. Louis, Baltimore and many others  have either raised it or are scheduling votes to do so. Many of those plans call for a phased-in approach to reach a certain wage target between now a some future date.

Here in Austin, low-wage workers have struggled for the past several years to stay afloat amidst appalling rent increases and stagnant wages. It is time for somebody to step up to the plate and call for a voluntary agreement to phase in increases to the minimum wage. Downtown business leaders are not going to do this on their own. It will take a major leadership push on the part of City officials and labor advocates, as well as grassroots citizen involvement.

We always hear the same arguments against raising the minimum wage – It will put people out of work, it will cut workers’ hours, etc., etc. And yet, whenever the Federal government has raised the minimum wage in the past, businesses somehow survived and people kept working. What is terribly galling in all this is that businesses will gladly pay for increases in rent, utilities, furniture, supplies and everything else you can think of…except the very people who keep their businesses running and serve their customers.

2. Set Priorities On Austin’s $8.3 Billion Set of Costly, Ambitious Plans

Last year on this blog, I asked several time for a complete listing of all of the plans across the City’s entire spectrum of departments.  Finally, during last summer’s budget discussions, Council Member Ellen Troxclair asked for a list of plans and the costs for each one of them.

 Here is the list of plans. If you put these plans and costs into a spreadsheet and total them up, the price tag comes to a staggering $8.3 Billion! And keep in mind that several of these items only show annual costs, without saying how many years it will take to complete them. So, the real total is considerably higher than $8 billion. And the plans keep coming. Another one was probably started while you were reading this!

The City needs to publish a complete list of plans in a single printed volume and also post them on their website. We need to have a major public discussion on prioritizing these plans. There is no way we could afford to pay upfront or borrow anything close to $8 billion dollars anytime soon. It would be irresponsible for the City to continue writing and developing any more plans until they can come up with an affordable timeline to pay for the ones we already have.

3. Allow People 65 and Over to Opt Out of the New Composting Fee

Sometime during the past year, some person or persons on the City staff woke up one morning with a brilliant idea…Let’s start charging every utility customer a brand new $5.00 composting fee! Hey, why not? It’s only money, and it would sure make Austin look green, cool, and hip! Well, in case you haven’t noticed the “add-on fees” that are tacked onto our monthly utility bills are growing faster than the annual increases in property taxes. You can look up the annual budgets online and see this disturbing trend. The new composting fee is scheduled to be phased in, and there is currently no opt-out provision. Seniors are already overburdened with skyrocketing taxes year and year and many of us are living on fixed incomes. An opt-out for seniors on the composting fee is a very reasonable request.

4. Establish a Two-Year Freeze On Utility Bill “Add-On Fees”

For almost 150 years, the City of Austin paid for all of its service from property taxes, sales taxes and transfers from the Austin Energy and the Water Utility to the General Fund. Then, a creeping trend began to evolve. Some bureaucrats decided to add things like a drainage fee, transportation fee and “clean community service” fee to our utility bills. These fees are rarely discussed in detail during budget season, but they have been rising at an alarming rate in recent years. The City Council should order a freeze on increases to these fees for two years and direct the staff to come up with efficiency plans to control the spiraling costs.

5. Set Policies to Protect Austin’s Remaining Affordable Neighborhoods

Austin is far from being the first city to face an affordability crisis. San Francisco, Portland, Seattle and other cities have faced the same issues of gentrification and displacement that we have. It is time for our City officials to reach out to these other cities and collaborate with them to determine what policies can be put into place to save some of our older neighborhoods before it is too late. We have heard lots of talk about traffic impacts and neighborhood preservation. But where are the proactive strategies to ensure that we don’t continue to lose every square inch of Austin land to luxury retail and extremely dense residential development?

We already have plans and reports that claim to include these protections. And yet we watch as communities in East Austin and along South Congress and other areas fall prey to the greedy whims of outside profiteers. To them, Austin is just another page in their ledger book. If our economy collapses under the weight of wage stagnation and economic inequality, then it’s no problem for the profiteers. They can just move on to wherever the next “It City” happens to be. And Austerities will be stuck with the massive debt hangover that comes with another boom and bust cycle.

If the City wants to get serious about affordability, our leaders will approach the problems of wage stagnation, displacement of older residents and enforceable standards for neighborhood traffic and land use compatibility. There should be plenty of examples to follow from other cities that have stumbled along the same treacherous path that we find ourselves on today. We should all call upon our City Council to take the quotation marks off “affordability” and get to work on some serious, meaningful solutions.

Three Words To Improve Austin Traffic – Hard Capacity Caps

By Bill Oakey – January 26, 2017

Traffic congestion and affordability go hand in hand, because building and improving roads is very expensive. Many Austerities swallowed hard when they voted “Yes” on last November’s whopping $720 mobility bond proposition. It was an audacious and very precarious leap of faith that all that money would indeed lead to meaningful traffic relief.

There were many skeptics on that question, myself included. Not all of the skeptics voiced outright opposition to the bonds, but there were wide-ranging fears that betrayed their silence. The heart of the mobility bond package was the so-called “corridor improvement plans.” These plans have been on the books for several years, and the complete picture of their purpose may not be clear to everyone in Austin.

But make no mistake about it. The corridor plans are geared much more heavily to growth enhancement prerogatives than to traffic relief for existing residents. These plans, their direction and their outcomes were crafted and influenced from beginning to end by major development interests. So, if you like your friendly neighborhood pet shops, bakeries and local handmade craft shops, be prepared to see many of them bulldozed and replaced by mountain-sized resort-style apartment “communities.”

You will be free to sell your comfortable home on its quiet tree-lined street and move into one of those ugly, imposing structures. That is, if you are wiling to write a check every month to an out-of-state landlord for anywhere between $1,500 to $2,500. It is all rent with no equity, but you will have your very own protected bike lane to ride 7 miles  to and from work in the 105 degree summer heat. The nearby homeowners who pass you in their cars will be saddened to see their property values continue to skyrocket because of the luxury accommodations that have encroached upon them.

Setting the Stage for a Series of Traffic Nightmares

People need to know that the implementation of the corridor plans is directly linked to the policy prescriptions in the ongoing CodeNext discussions. You can be sure that every developer from Austin to Boston, to New York to Dubai, and everywhere in between has been having wet dreams about every square inch of land along Austin’s roadway corridors. Knocking down those charming little shops with a lifetime of memories for Austin residents promises a whole generation of new developer profits. Step one will be the one to two-block long high rises. Step two will be the total gentrification and annihilation of existing single family areas. Each corridor and its adjoining neighborhood is already on some developer’s drawing board to become a trendy, utopian “complete community” that will be walkable and bike-able. But it will also be  ultra-luxurious, and frighteningly expensive

So, What’s Wrong With This Picture?

It’s the Traffic Impact!

Whenever a developer submits a plan for a new project, they are supposed to provide a “traffic impact analysis.” But have any of your friends ever seen a literal translation of one of those bureaucratic documents? Do they really have any real meaning or enforcement mechanisms attached to them? Undoubtedly not.

There is only one way to assure that a traffic impact analysis lends actual value to real people in real neighborhoods. And that would be for the City to determine a few simple things:

  1. How many vehicle trips per day can the roadway handle? That’s the road’s capacity.
  2. What is the current number of vehicle trips per day on that road?
  3. How many new vehicle trips per day will the proposed development generate?

If the City Transportation Department reviews those numbers and publishes them accurately and honestly, then the solution to traffic congestion becomes very simple. The developer cannot be granted more living units than the exact number that will avoid exceeding the roadway’s vehicle capacity. And how do we establish an enforcement policy along those lines? We ask the City to determine the “hard capacity caps” for each of the corridors, and simply not allow any developer to build anything that would generate traffic that exceeds those caps.

Transparency Is Key to Maintaining the Hard Capacity Caps

This is where CodeNext comes into play. It is absolutely critical that the time-honored phrase “traffic impact” when applied to the new development code be strictly and transparently defined and communicated to everyone. And it needs to be done with real numbers that are unambiguous. For example, if a roadway corridor is determined to have a capacity of X number of vehicles per day, then any proposed development must be required to generate not a single iota more traffic than that number.

Here’s the Bottom Line!

The Capacity Numbers for Each Corridor Must Be Published Online By the City. Along With the Current Number of Vehicles Per Day. And finally, Published Verification That Each Proposed Development Will Not Exceed That Capacity.

Period…

How You Can Be Screwed By American Airlines – Seven Ways From Sunday!

By Bill Oakey – July 26, 2016

When I travel by air, I almost always fly Southwest. So, I was horrified to learn about the boarding trap that American Airlines can snare passengers in. I was coming back from Albany to Austin on July 18th. I had to change planes in Charlotte, North Carolina. The flight out of Albany got rerouted because of thunderstorms. This caused a delay of about 45 minutes.

About halfway to North Carolina, I asked a flight attendant about my connecting flight to Austin. I wanted to know if the airline coordinates arriving passengers with departing flights, to ensure that you don’t miss your connection. I would not expect them to hold outgoing flights for half an hour or 45 minutes. But I was hoping that passengers who arrived in the terminal before their connecting flights took off would be allowed to board those flights within a reasonable time frame. In my case, the fight to Austin was the last one of the day. So, delaying it for a few minutes would not cause a chain reaction affecting any subsequent flights.

The flight attendant’s response to my question was brief and blunt. “You are on your own,” she told me. “Connecting flights are not coordinated these days.” She agreed to try to obtain the gate number for my flight to Austin. Then she offered me one positive concession. “If you miss your flight and have to stay overnight, we will give you a free hotel room.”

As our flight to Charlotte neared its end, I nervously started checking my watch. We hovered above the city lights below for what seemed like an eternity. When they finally announced that they were going to make their final descent and land, we were 20 minutes away from my Austin flight’s boarding time. The passenger sitting next to me knew the Charlotte airport well. He said I could make the run to my departing gate in about 5 minutes. I was sitting close to the front of the plane, so I knew I could exit quickly.

I arrived at the departure gate completely out of breath and plunked my boarding pass down on the counter. “Austin is gone,” the man said. Just like that – gone. I could see by my watch that it was precisely three minutes past the scheduled departure time. I could see the gate attendant’s fingers zipping across his computer keyboard.  “The next flight to Austin is at 7:00 tomorrow morning,” he announced to me and a couple of other stunned passengers who stood next to me. “I’ll see what kind of accommodations we can arrange,” he explained.

I told him that I had been promised a complimentary hotel room. From that point forward, everything went from bad to worse. They don’t give free hotel rooms if the flight delay is weather-related. I was told that I would get a discounted room, and that “most of the hotels offer free shuttle service.”

I was given a slip of paper with a 1-800 phone number for a third-party “stranded airline passenger service.” After going through several menus and waiting on hold, I was informed that all of the hotels close to the airport were full. The nearest available room was seven miles away at a Holiday Inn. They have no shuttle service, so I would have to pay for a taxi to get there.

This all happened on a Monday night. If it had been a weekend, I hate to think how far away I would have had to go, and at what cost. The Holiday Inn provided me with three and a half hours of sleep for $106.00, including taxes. The cab fare was a fixed rate of $25 each way, not including tips. There was no restaurant open in the hotel for breakfast the next morning. I had to be ready for the cab at 4:30 AM.

As frustrated and furious as I was at American Airlines, the situation could have been even worse. I found out that they have an iron-fisted, arbitrary policy about letting passengers with boarding passes get through the gate and onto a plane. They allow people to board up until 10 minutes before the departure time. Then they shut the door. If any breathless passengers arrive at the gate 2 seconds after the door is shut, they are simply screwed. They get to watch their plane sit for 9 minutes and 58 seconds, and then soar into the clouds without them. A fellow traveler told me that he got stuck exactly that way with 45 other people headed for Austin. Even though all of their seats were available and the plane was still sitting at the gate, American Airlines refused to let any of them board. They were all given the choice of sleeping at the airport or paying for a hotel room and two-way taxi fare.

This policy obviously suits the airline just fine. The more planes that arrive and depart on schedule, the better for their profits. The policy applies to all flights under all circumstances. No consideration is given for good weather conditions that might allow a pilot to make up the lost time. The arriving and departure gates for connecting flights could be right next to each other. Or, the departing flight could be the last one of the day, with no risk of compounding delays. Despite all of the expense and inconvenience to thousands of passengers every week, American’s CEO probably sleeps comfortably every night. He knows that every penny of profit is protected to the maximum extent possible. Including whatever cut they take from the third-party vendors who arrange hotel rooms for the stranded passengers. And sure enough, Bloomberg reported last January that American earned record profits in 2015.

While searching online for more information about American and their despicable policies, I discovered something else equally disgusting. Back in March, the Washington Post reported that passengers can get screwed by another boarding policy, even before the first part of their trip begins. Suppose that you could not download your boarding pass onto a computer or your phone before you arrived at the airport. Maybe you had to leave in a hurry after a meeting. Or maybe you couldn’t get your mobile Internet connection to work. American has a weird policy that no new boarding passes can be generated once the clock reaches 30 minutes before your departure time. So, you could be at the security checkpoint, standing at a boarding pass kiosk. If it’s less than 30 minutes before your departure time, congratulations! You lose your seat and your flight. No one can issue you a boarding pass because “the system” cannot handle it. If it’s late in the evening, you’ll get to spend the night. Won’t that be fun?

airport-sleeping-2012

At 5:00 AM on Tuesday July 18th, I sat at my gate at the airport in Charlotte. Finally, I would be going home to Austin. In the next row over, I noticed a woman huddled in a blanket, waiting for the same flight as mine. She had spent the entire night sitting upright in her chair. Suddenly, the image of another person in another chair crept across my mind. I was thinking of the CEO of American Airlines. He was probably basking on the beach at one of his vacation homes on the other side of the world. I imagined him sipping a drink while nervously checking his watch, just as I had done the night before as my flight came in to Charlotte. Only the CEO’s anxiety would be a little bit different from mine. He would be stressed by an upcoming decision by the board of directors. Would they or would they not approve his $2 million bonus for delivering another solid year of record profits?

Fat-Cat-on-the-Beach

Musical Accompaniment for This Blog Posting:

  1. “The Biggest Airport In the World” – Moe Bandy,
  2. “L.A. International Airport” – Susan Raye,
  3. “The Great Airplane Strike” – Paul Revere & the Raiders
  4. “Leaving On a Jet Plane” – Peter, Paul & Mary
  5. “Ebony Eyes” – The Everly Brothers
  6. “Outbound Plane” – Suzy Bogguss
  7. “Trains And Boats And Planes” – Dionne Warwick
  8. “Next Plane Out” – Celine Dion
  9. “Airplane” – Indigo Girls
  10. “Come Fly With Me” – Frank Sinatra

Revised Texas School Finance Reform Proposal

By Bill Oakey – July 13, 2016

For the past few months I have been working with AISD and other interested parties on a proposal to reform the Texas school finance system. The current “Robin Hood” system that recaptures funds from “property rich” school districts and distributes those funds to “property poor” school districts is badly flawed. The Texas Supreme Court acknowledged that fact, even while issuing its ruling that the controversial funding plan is legal under the Texas Constitution.

My original reform proposal served a valid purpose in starting a conversation with AISD  officials. I never expected to hit the ball out of the park on the firs try. But thanks to the gracious help, encouragement and input from Kendall Pace, President of the AISD Board of Trustees, I now have a revised proposal that is ready to present to the Texas Legislature.

Without some type of meaningful reform, the Austin Independent School District stands to lose hundreds of millions of dollars over the coming years. One estimate shows that AISD’s recapture payment to the State would skyrocket from $181 million to $445 million over a three-year period. Our community simply cannot sustain that level of accelerating financial loss. Austin pays more into the “Robin Hood” system than any other school district in the entire state.

Here Is the Revised Proposal

1. Keep the existing geographic boundaries for calculating the “property rich” and “property poor” school districts across the state.

2. One important fact should be fundamental to the reform discussion. The school districts classified as primarily “property rich” may have a large number of students living in poverty. The school districts classified as primarily “property poor” may have some number of students living above the poverty line.

3. The State could set up a clear and fair method for calculating an offset for the students within the “property rich” districts who qualify as living in poverty. This offset could be subtracted from the recapture amount that the school district sends back to the State.

4. The offset could be as simple as a fixed dollar amount per student classified as living in poverty.

5. If there are easily definable variables that should be applied to the per-student-in-poverty calculation, those could be factored into the funding formula.

6. Conversely, if there are students living above the poverty line in the school districts classified as primarily “property poor,” then another offset could be applied to equalize the funding formula for those districts.

The purpose of this proposal is to build more equity into the recapture and redistribution system. There is probably no method available that everyone would characterize as perfect. Historically, the Texas school finance system has been viewed by many as overly complicated. Battles have been fought on the floor of both houses in the Legislature and in the State court system for far too long. Others who understand school finance much better than I may find ways to improve my proposal, or perhaps consider another plan that works better. But here’s hoping that Austin students and teachers, as well as our local taxpayers will emerge from the upcoming Legislative session with a much better system than we have today.

Before I leave this reform discussion, let me put the issue into a human perspective that I hope everyone reading this will appreciate. I do not have any children in the Austin schools. But my sister and my nephew have both worked as teachers, and my uncle Joe Oakey was the Commissioner of Education for the State of Vermont. My heart and my spirits were uplifted on the evening of this past May 23rd. On that date, I went to the AISD board meeting to speak during Public Communications. This happened to be the occasion for a large number of students to receive their annual achievement awards. I have a permanent memory of the smiles from those students and the proud looks on their parents’ faces.

Before the meeting, we all stood and recited the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag. For a few brief moments, I remembered what it was like to be a kid in school once again. We should all keep in mind that school funding is not just about courts, judges, Legislators and piles of papers and statistics. None of us would have any of the skills and talents that we try to use today unless the people who came before us really cared about the value of a good education. Let’s all try to come together and make the same thing happen for future generations of children in Texas.

My First Grade Class Picture

My First Grade Class Picture

Will Capital Metro Ever Improve Their Bus Service?

By Bill Oakey – July 12, 2016

Almost on a daily basis, I get pieces of mail intended for car drivers – special offers on auto insurance, credit union offers for low-cost car loans, even actual ignition keys. I’m supposed to take the ignition key to a car dealership to enter a contest. If I put the key in and the car starts up, it’s mine to keep and I can drive it off the lot. Now, that would make an interesting video advertisement for sure – me crashing a brand new car!

So, here’s the bottom line folks. Not everybody can drive a car, because of a wide variety of disabilities. Some people cannot afford their own car. And others have aged beyond the point where it is safe for them to drive. Some prefer to take the bus to work even if they do own a car. For all of those reasons, we need a good bus system that serves our entire community. But Capital Metro has actually gone backwards instead of forward in the direction of an adequate system.

A Mobility Adventure With An Affordability Twist

A couple of months ago, I stopped into a local business to take care of an errand. I had taken the bus to the doctor for a physical exam. That meant I was pretty darned hungry for a late breakfast, since you have to fast before such an exam. I asked the person behind the counter where the nearest breakfast restaurant was. They suggested Dan’s Hamburgers. “It’s right close by, just north of here on this side of Lamar,” I was told.

So, I walked about two blocks east to 4800 North Lamar. I turned left and headed up the sidewalk. I got to end of the first block and assumed that Dan’s Hamburgers was probably in the next block, or perhaps the one after that. But I was in for a rude surprise. It turned about to be a very long hike. I asked several people how close it was, and they just kept telling me to keep going.

By this time I had already figured out what the problem was. The guy who told me that Dan’s Hamburgers was “right close by” must have assumed that I would get into a car and quickly zip over there. The long, eight-block hike would have taken less than five minutes in a car. During the entire walk, two happy thoughts kept running through my mind. One, I believed that the breakfast would be well worth waiting for. And two, it was comforting to know that the #1 North Lamar bus runs every 11-12 minutes. At least I would have a short wait as soon as I finished breakfast.

OK, Breakfast Is Done. Now I’m Sitting At the Nearest Bus Stop

As it turns out, I had not ridden the North Lamar bus in the last couple of years. After several minutes went by, reality began to set in. Even before I looked up the schedule, I remembered something bad. North Lamar and Burnet Road are the two busiest routes in the Capital Metro system. In 2014, they thought they had created a wonderful solution by putting in those gigantic, double-sized buses – MetroRapid they are called. They have accordions on them to help navigate turns.

Those giant buses are exactly twice as expensive to ride as the regular ones. And they are “express buses,” which means that they will get you across town faster because they make much fewer stops. But here’s the bad news for the huge number of regular bus riders. When the giant buses went into service, Capital Metro more than doubled the waiting time for the regular buses. And besides that, there may not be a “giant bus stop” anywhere near where you happen to be when you need a bus.

That convenient, every-11-to-12-minute service up and down North Lamar to Guadalupe, past  U.T. into downtown that we enjoyed for 25 or 30 years no longer exists. It has been stretched into 26 minutes. So, if you throw in Murphy’s law, the last bus at my stop probably came about 14 seconds before I walked out of Dan’s Hamburgers. I was in for quite a long wait. Imagine trying to endure that in July, with blistering 100-degree heat and stifling humidity.

The Man With the Bright Red Book In His Lap

I didn’t have to wait long for some human companionship. A quiet, neatly dressed guy pulling a small overnight suitcase on rollers plopped down on the seat next to me. At first, I didn’t say anything to him. I couldn’t help but notice the bright red book in his lap. I could read the title quite clearly. Then I looked at my watch. The vast majority of those 26 minutes were still out there to be counted. So, I figured I might as well take a chance and start a conversation.

“Is that a Holy Bible?” I asked, even though I already knew the answer.

“Why, yes, it certainly is!” the guy responded, as his face lit up with eager anticipation.

There was something about him that made me think he was not going to pound me into submission if I did not succumb to everything he had to offer. He appeared to be a calm and gentle soul, and Indeed he was. He briefly explained that he had learned all of life’s bitter lessons. He would never use drugs or alcohol again. And above all, he was certainly never going back to prison. When the bus finally came, I was grateful for the time-passing conversation.

Will Austin’s “Year of Mobility” Include Expansion and Improvements to Capital Metro’s Bus Service?

Ever since the defeat of the wildly expensive “urban rail” bonds in 2014, I have been waiting for an announcement about improved bus service. Jeff Travillion, the winner of the Democratic primary for Travis County Commissioner, campaigned on that issue. Many neighborhoods in both northeast and southeast Travis County have no bus service at all, not even with 26 minute wait times. And just for the record, there are other busy routes inside the city that have longer waits than 26 minutes. The regular, non-accordion #3 Burnet/Manchaca bus runs in 30-35 minute intervals on weekdays.

How Does Capital Metro’s Official “2020 Plan” Line Up With What They Actually Did to the Bus Service?

In the case of the busy #1 North Lamar Route, the official “Capital Metro 2020 Plan,” published in January 2010, contained a promise that they clearly failed to keep. In Chapter 5, “Service Recommendations,” Page 5-14, you will find these statements:

“Frequency on Route 1 should be improved to account for the deletion of service on Route 1L. Route 1 should be classified as a future ‘Frequent Service’ Route. Route 101 will be converted to a MetroRapid Bus Rapid Transit line. The alignment of the MetroRapid line is identical to the alignment of Route 101, although the number of stops will be reduced.”

The situation only got worse after the official plan was published. Instead of improving the service on Route !, they did the exact opposite. Over the next two years, the passengers complained. On January 31, 2014, KUT reported on it in a news story entitled, “Is Capital Metro’s New MetroRapid Service Leaving Bus Riders Behind?” When questioned about the longer wait times and the frustrated passengers, Roberto Gonzalez, Capital Metro’s Manager of Service Planning made another hollow promise: “As for adding back additional Route 1 service, if there’s something that we need to address more permanently, then that’s what we’ll end up doing,” he says. “But it is very early.”

Well, here we are another two years out and the service is still pretty pitiful. I have to wonder how many other major cities would tolerate 25-35 minute wait times on the two busiest bus routes in their systems.

A New “Connections 2025 Plan” Is Currently In Development – And Guess What the Community Survey Reveals…

You can read about the new plan here. The “Community Survey Summary” offers many insights into what people like and dislike most about Capital Metro. Not surprisingly, the results of one survey question jumped out at me.

Question 15, Page 17: “I Would Ride Capital Metro more often if…”

The highest ranking response, at 50% was, “If the buses ran more frequently.” You can You can see the graph here.

Let’s Add Bus Improvements to the Conversation About Transportation Bonds In November

I will be meeting with Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt and City Council Member Ann Kitchen to encourage them to support just such a plan. Both of them serve on the Capital Metro Board. I will also bring it up with the Mayor’s staff. With the road bonds set to appear on the November ballot, only the car-driving folks and bicycle riders will have the opportunity for mobility improvements. Large numbers of people on the lower end of Austin’s devastating economic divide remain trapped in a mobility and affordability quagmire.

So, let’s ask our civic leaders to address the needs of citizens who rely on Capital Metro buses to get to and from their destinations. Not only would those improvements help existing bus riders, but they could very well encourage others to start using the bus system and take some cars off the roads. And while we’re at it, let’s push for a network of park and ride facilities too. Instead of relying on another study headed by an outside consultant, we need a real action plan that budgets these improvements and puts them into place. Our leaders need to deliver the results just as predictably as the roadway and bicycle improvements that we will vote on in November.

Then And Now – The Multiplying Wait Times for Regular Capital Metro Buses

  1. 2008 Capital Metro Schedule Book – Look at Route #1L/1M, North Lamar/South Congress, beginning on Page 23. Note that most of the time intervals on weekdays are 11 to 12 minutes apart. Look at Route #3, Burnet/Manchaca, beginning on Page 33. Note that most of the time intervals on weekdays are 20 to 23 minutes apart.
  2. 2016 Capital Metro Schedule Book – Look at Route #1, Metric/South Congress, which includes North Lamar, beginning on Page 33. Note that most of the time intervals on weekdays have increased to 26 minutes apart. Look at Route #3, Burnet/Manchaca, beginning on Page 41. Note that most of the time intervals on weekdays have increased to 30 to 35 minutes apart.

Musical Accompaniment for This Blog Posting:

Walking Songs

  1. “I’m Walking” – Ricky Nelson’s first record, 1957. A bigger hit for Fats Domino
  2. “Walk Right In” – The Rooftop Singers, 1963
  3. “Walk Right Back” – The Everly Brothers, 1961
  4. “I Walk the Line” – Johnny Cash, 1956
  5. “These Boots Are Made for Walking” – Nancy Sinatra, 1966
  6. Walk Like a Man” – The Four Seasons, 1963
  7. “Walking In the Sunshine” – Roger Miller, 1967

Songs About Waiting

  1. “Tired of Waiting for You” – The Kinks, 1965
  2. “I’m Waiting Forever” – Willie Nelson, 1996
  3. “Waiting In the Weeds” – The Eagles, 2007
  4. “Sitting, Waiting, Wishing” – Jack Johnson, 2005
  5. “Right Here Waiting” – Richard Marx, 1989
  6. “Forever” – The Little Dippers (Pseudonym for the Anita Kerr Singers), 1960

Songs for the Man With the Bright Red Book

  1. “The Wild Side of Life” – Hank Thompson, 1951
  2. “Walk On the Wild Side” – Brook Benton, 1962
  3. “The Lord Knows I’m Drinking” – Cal Smith, 1972
  4. “Prisoner’s Song” – Adam Wade, 1962
  5. “In the Jailhouse Now” – Jimmy Wakely, 1957
  6. “I Saw the Light” – Willie Nelson & Leon Russell, 1979
  7. “Down to the River to Pray” – Alison Krauss, 2000
  8. “Me And Jesus” – Tom T. Hall, 1972
  9. “The Baptism of Jesse Taylor” – Johnny Russell, 1973
  10. “Just A Closer Walk With Thee” – Patsy Cline, 1960
  11. “You’ll Never Walk Alone” – The Lettermen, 1965

Let’s Seal The Deal On Hamilton Pool Fees

By Bill Oakey – June 1, 2016

Last week I wrote a very tongue-in-cheek criticism of Travis County officials for their new method of charging fees to visit the Hamilton Pool Reserve. Behind the scenes, however, I have a very good working relationship with the Travis County Commissioners Court. I simply could not resist jumping into the pool fray on this blog. Now, the ball is in their Court, literally. I have reached out to Commissioner Gerald Daugherty’s office, since his Precinct 3 is where the park is located. My suggestions for reforming the fee structure and the method of collecting the fees, taking reservations, etc. will be considered and reviewed with the appropriate County Parks staff.

Now, here comes my favorite research question again…

How Do They Do This Kind of Thing In Other Counties and Other States?

Well, I found some answers. And this is how I think we can close the deal – signed, sealed and delivered. In the section below the picture, I will lay out the differences in rules and policies in other places, side by side with how it’s now being done during Hamilton Pool’s peak season here in Travis County.

The handshake after the deal is sealed

The handshake after the deal is sealed

Side By Side Comparison Of Rules and Procedures

The Travis County information is taken directly from this Travis County Parks Webpage.

Reservation Date Change Policy

Travis County: “Once you make your reservation, you cannot change the date.” (This means that if you are a tourist or are otherwise unable to go on a later date, then you forfeit the $10.00 registration fee).

Santa Barbara, California Parks (found here): “To change or modify a reservation, please complete and submit an online Reservation Change Form.

Reservation Refund Policy

Travis County: “Reservations are not refundable.”

Santa Barbara Parks (found here): “Reservations cancelled within 24 hours of making the reservation are eligible for a full refund.”

Reservation Payment Policy – Credit Cards vs. Cash or Check

Travis County: “You pay online for your reservation fee, and pay for your (separate) entrance fee with cash or local check when you arrive at the preserve.” (This means that if you don’t have a credit card because you are economically disadvantaged, then you cannot make a reservation, and therefore, you cannot come to the park).

Bexar County (San Antonio), Texas (found here under FAQ’s & Info): “Reservations made online through this system must be paid at the time of reservation with a major credit card. We accept Visa, Mastercard, American Express, and Discover. Reservations can be made in person with cash or check. If you would to make a reservation in person, please visit our office downtown.” (Travis County could go further, by offering this service both downtown and in other office locations).

Why Does Travis County Need Two Separate Fees for Hamilton Pool?

The dual reservation plus entrance fee policy has resulted in a dramatic skyward leap for the total cost, from $15 per vehicle to $26. Parks staff have told the Commissioners Court that there are “too many tiers” of entrance fees to allow them to charge each visitor a single up-front fee. Visitors on bicycles, pass holders and seniors with discounts all pay different entrance fees. But the last time I booked anything online, I found a wide range of options and I never questioned whether the 21st century computer system could handle the complexity.

It would seem to be far more efficient and certainly more convenient for the park visitors to make just one up-front payment to cover both the reservation and the entrance fee. And as I mentioned in my previous blog posting, the County is saving huge amounts of taxpayers’ money and resources during the peak season for Hamilton Pool. Much fewer Parks staff are needed without the overflow crowds and the parking madness that occurred before the new reservation system was adopted. So, logically, the total fees charged to the park users should be lower, rather than higher, than they were under the old system. Does the County Park system need more overall funding in the budget? If so, that is a separate issue altogether, and it should not create an undue burden for Hamilton Pool visitors.

A Few Words About Customer Service and a Friendly, Welcoming Approach

Visitors and citizens of Travis Country are the guests of the hosts who provide the public services. Our County officials should not let themselves be outdone by California or anyplace else when it comes to the Gold Standard of Excellence that they should strive to achieve. Policies should be as flexible, convenient and socioeconomically inclusive as possible. All of our parks should be accessible to anyone who wishes to come and enjoy them.

SL-3

Hamilton_Pool

Musical Accompaniment for This Blog Posting:

  1. “Signed, Sealed And Delivered” – Rusty Draper, 1961
  2. “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours” – Stevie Wonder, 1970
  3. “The Rain, The Park, And Other Things” – The Cowsills, 1967
  4. “All The Gold In California” – Larry Gatlin & the Gatlin Brothers Band, 1979
  5. “Coward Of The County” – Kenny Rogers, 1980

Hamilton Pool Fee Earns First “Unaffordability Award” For Travis County

By Bill Oakey – May 25, 2016

This is the time of year for congratulating all kinds of citizens. Students are graduating, many of them with honors and distinctions, from high schools and colleges across Central Texas. Very soon, the June wedding season will begin, with beaming grooms and smiling brides celebrating and being congratulated by their families and friends.

My nephew, Nathan and his bride, Amanda at their June, 2002 wedding

My nephew, Nathan and his bride, Amanda at their June, 2002 wedding

For all of those reasons, I am very disappointed that May 2016 just happens to be the time when Travis County receives the very first “downer” award from this blog. We sometimes hear sour notes in music, and awards can be given for negative recognition. So, today we announce an un-congratulatory, “Unaffordability Award” for Travis County.*

The Hamilton Pool Reservation Fee Fiasco – A Fantastical Foray Into Fiscal Foolishness

As of May 15, the Travis County Parks Department began charging a $10.00 advance reservation fee to get into Hamilton Pool Preserve. The fee can only be paid online and only with a credit card. There is a mandatory $1.00 surcharge for the credit card, so the fee is actually $11.00. None of it is refundable under any circumstances. And once you make the reservation, you cannot change the date. I suppose that pools need rules, but who were the fools who came up with such an unfriendly and inflexible system? I did find one section of the website that states that you can change your reservation (but you still can’t get a refund) if rain causes the pool to be closed on your reservation date. If you are a tourist and don’t plan to come back anytime soon, I guess you just eat the $11.00 fee.

Is There Another Fee to Pay When You Get to the Pool?

Of course. This one is $15 per vehicle. And the reservation fee does not count towards the second fee. So, your total cost comes to $26.00. The double-pack of fees remains in effect through September 30th. County officials did articulate a reason for these policy changes. Hamilton Pool is just “getting too popular around the globe.” So, the reservation system protects the public from driving 30 miles from Austin, only to discover that there is a long line of cars waiting to get in. County Parks staff have been spending too many hours and costly resources handling the traffic in recent years. But their solution leaves a lot of questions, not the least of which is this one:

Does Your Family “Belong” at Hamilton Pool? – Apparently Not, If You Are Low-Income

In these modern days of $300 massages and $150 breakfasts at some downtown hotels during Formula One, $26 in fees to get into Hamilton Pool may not sound like a big deal. But let’s not forget that Travis County has a very high poverty rate, and a heck of a lot of families who struggle with low wages, high rent and other affordability issues. For a special occasion, some of those families may want to visit Hamilton Pool. Travis County does an admirable job on affordable housing initiatives and they continue to explore new options in that area. But somewhere, somehow, somebody simply dropped the ball on this Hamilton Pool fee fiasco.

droppedball

How Much Extra Parks Revenue Could Travis County Get From the New Fees This Year?

$127,175.00, according to the Austin Monitor.

A Simple Solution

The crux of the pool problem seems to be overcrowding and not enough room for parking. The Texas Governor’s Mansion uses a simple reservation process, and it’s free. As for Hamilton Pool, it seems like it would make sense to charge only one fee, and let visitors pay it online in advance. That’s what people do every day when they pay for concerts and zillions of other special events. Modern computer systems are capable of handling reservation date changes. A family with a medical emergency or any other reason should not have to swallow the fee and pay it again later. Since the upfront cost would be higher under this arrangement, the County might want to rethink the refund policy. Perhaps they could charge a small processing fee to do a refund. Retailers and restaurants do it all the time with credit card payments, usually without an extra charge.

A More Cost-Effective Process Should Result In Lower Fees, Not Higher Ones

Travis County should be able to run a few cost analysis scenarios and come up with a payment method that is far simpler and more affordable than the one that took effect on May 15th. In fact, since the new system would be automated and fewer Parks staff would be needed to handle the smaller influx of cars, the visitor fee should be lower than last year’s, not higher. Hamilton pool should be financially accessible to all Travis County residents.

* Fine Print: “Downer” awards from this blog can be rescinded. No application, no website registration, and no fee is required. Once the public officials fix the problem that earned them the award, the blog will rescind it. The original posting will remain in the blog archives, along with an update noting when the award was rescinded.

Musical Accompaniment for This Blog Posting:

“The Unbirthday Song” – From “Alice In Wonderland”