Tag Archives: Austin affordability

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…

Ellen Troxclair Is First To Stand Up For Affordability

By Bill Oakey – August 21, 2016

With Austinites reeling from another year of double-digit tax appraisal increases and neighborhoods across the city losing longterm residents because of high taxes, this blog has called for City Council action on affordability. In Saturday’s Austin American-Statesman, Council Member Ellen Troxclair became the first to speak up, with an op-ed calling for an official “Year of Affordability.” (This recommendation is Item # 8 on the Affordability Petition to the City Council, posted here on August 11th).

Council Member Troxclair’s willingness to stand up for the taxpayers should be embraced immediately by the rest of the City Council. Although the technically non-partisan Council often splits along obvious party lines, affordability is such a critical issue that it demands attention from all quarters. Kudos to Troxclair for pointing out that the City Budget is growing much faster than our population, and that they have $40 million in new revenue to spend without any tax increase at all. And yet the proposed budget raises them to the legal maximum of 8%.

Remember This – If The City Keeps Raising Taxes 8% Every Year, Your Taxes Will Double In 9 Years!

One of the reasons that the budget is so high is that it includes funding for a wide variety of City plans. As this blog has pointed out several times, there is no coordination or systematic approach to the City’s overall planning process. There are so many plans on the books that no one on the City Staff or the Council would even know where to begin if they were asked to list them all or determine what their total cost might be. And yet, more and more new plans pop up every year, costing millions of dollars to develop and publish. Just close your eyes and try to imagine any private company stumbling blindly into the future without any earthy idea how many plans they have or how much they might cost. The City just plugs the numbers into the budget each year, and crosses their fingers that the taxpayers won’t mind. (See Item # 7 on the Affordability Petition).

Let’s Ask the Entire City Council to Reduce the Budget, Lower the Utility Fees and Live Within Their Means – Just Like You and Your Families Have to Do!

Here is the single-click link to email the entire City Council. Feel free to submit the link to the Affordability Petition from this blog.

Here is Council Member Ellen Troxclair’s Editorial. Let’s hope she can find co-sponsors to make the budget more affordable.

Troxclair: Make this the year of affordability

By Ellen Troxclair – Special to the American-Statesman, August 20, 2016

When voters sent the new 10-1 council to City Hall, they did so with a clear mandate to address the rapidly rising cost of living in Austin in order to slow gentrification, address economic segregation, keep long time Austinites in their homes, and protect seniors — and the rest of us, too — from losing their quality of life. Yet, as we enter our second budget cycle, “affordability” seems to be slipping further and further away.

In these next few weeks leading up to budget adoption, critical decisions about property taxes, utility bills and city programs will be made. This is when the difficult choices are supposed to happen. But the proposed budget takes the easy road at every turn.

It includes an increase to all utility bills and every major fee in the city, and it proposes adopting the maximum tax rate allowable under state law. General Fund spending is increasing a whopping $58 million, and an additional 437 new city employees are being added to the payroll.

To put this in perspective, since 2010, the increase in the adopted tax rate, when compared to the effective tax rate, never rose above 4.4 percent. Last year, that increase was 6.85 percent. This year, we are faced with an 8 percent increase. This occurs despite the fact that Austin already has a higher cumulative property tax bill than all the major cities in Texas when calculated as a percentage of income.

While the individual financial impact will vary, if you live in the median-valued home — which is $278,741 — with the 8 percent homestead exemption, your property taxes, utility bills, and fees will increase an estimated $150 a year. This, of course, does not include the impact from the other taxing entities like Travis County, Austin ISD, Central Health or Austin Community College. If you own a business, or have an older home that is not considered energy efficient, you will likely be faced with an even greater increase.

Some argue that we’re a growing city and we have to keep up. While this may be true, our spending is greatly outpacing our increase in population. The city’s population grew 2.5 percent in 2015, but our spending is increasing a massive 6.7 percent.

The growth is certainly already contributing the city’s coffers. Property tax revenue from new construction is expected to increase by $10.2 million. Sales tax for the city is expected to increase by $8.5 million. Hotel occupancy taxes could rise by $11.2 million. Licensing, permitting, and inspection revenues could increase by $9.1 million. Charges for services other than utilities could increase by $2.4 million. Parking revenue could go up by $900,000. Other taxes, which includes alcohol tax is expected at $1.7 million.

This means that the city is already bringing in well over $40 million in additional revenue this year, and is still going to turn to you for more money.

The city must learn to live within reasonable means, set goals that have measurable outcomes, and scrutinize every program in order to become relentlessly efficient with taxpayer dollars.

In this year alone, I have voted against hundreds of millions in spending, from high priced consultants to vehicle purchases to cost overruns. I did not vote this way because replacing vehicles every three years or hiring consultants aren’t nice things to do. It is because each vote and each purchase ultimately impacts affordability. We must ask ourselves: Is this item a higher priority than financial relief for Austinites?

Beyond that, the city could choose not to add any new positions until the over 1,000 existing vacant — but fully funded — positions are filled. Save the money allocated to these vacant positions as a credit to the next year’s budget. The city could limit the surprisingly large marketing budgets and significant transfers to other departments from Austin Energy, Austin Water, and Austin Resource Recovery.

None of these choices would result in laying off employees or cutting critical services, which is so often the false narrative when confronted with the idea of slowing spending.

Austin residents need a break — and this is the time to take their pleas to heart. We have to end the pattern of consistently increasing spending that has become a crisis for our city. It’s time for action, and it’s time for this budget year to be the Year of Affordability.

Troxclair is a member of the Austin City Council, representing District 8.

Affordability Petition To The City Council – Let’s All Join In!

By Bill Oakey – August 11, 2016

Unless Austinites come together quickly and petition the City Council, the new budget will hit us with the biggest round of property tax, utility and monthly fee increases in several years. The entire concept of affordability has been tossed to the wind by a City Manager and staff that appear to be isolated from the realities facing us. The lofty language in the budget crows about a booming local economy. But it doesn’t mention what’s happening to you and your neighbors – being taxed out of your homes, runaway rent increases, and stagnant wages.

This Petition Needs To Move Quickly. You Can Print It and Distribute It To Your Friends. Or Just Share This Blog Link By Email And Social Media

Affordability Petition to the Austin City Council – August 2016

We call upon the Austin City Council to reject the City Manager’s FIscal Year 2017 Budget recommendation. We respectfully ask you to recognize that affordability is the number one civic issue, and to protect the interests of taxpayers by taking the following actions:

1. Make responsible adjustments to the Budget to reduce the effective tax rate increase from 8% to 4% or less, in line with most City Budgets adopted since 2011. Delay or phase in new programs. purchases and staff positions, rather than sacrificing critical community needs. (Annual increases of 8% would cause property taxes to double in 9 years – even sooner if tax appraisals go up).

2. Place all utility charge and utility bill add-on fee increases on hold. Ask the City Manager to report back to the City Council with a much more affordable fee schedule. (The dollar impact of the utility and fee increases is 2.4 times higher than the property tax increase for a typical resident).

3. Provide senior citizen discounts for all utility bill add-on fees. This is necessary since these fees are growing faster than property taxes.

4. Establish a sliding scale for City employee pay raises. Consider a flat dollar amount or a percentage with a dollar cap. Provide living wages for low-income workers. (2.5% raises over 10 years would increase a $150,000 salary by $37,329. But a $30,000 salary would only increase by $7,466. This would promote economic segregation).

5. Allocate equal City resources to retaining existing Austin residents as for recruiting new businesses. Please consider the AustinAffordability.com ”Homeowner Retention Initiative” as a starting point, along with policies and practices to help renters.

6. Establish a formal timeline to rapidly implement the Mayor’s “Music & Creative Ecosystem Stabilization Recommendations.” We need to protect Austin’s creative Industries and our quality of life.

7. Compile a comprehensive list of all City plans, determine estimated costs for each plan, along with a grand total cost for all of the plans. Publish the list on the City’s website. Seek public input to prioritize the plans and develop an affordable timeline for implementing them.

8. Make an official declaration of 2017 as “The Year of Affordability,” and pursue it as vigorously as you did the 2016 declaration for “The Year of Mobility.”

For more details on how the FY 2017 Budget shuns affordability, read this posting.

How to Get the Petition to the City Council

The fastest way is to use this single-click link to email all of them at once. Just tell them you support the AustinAffordability.com Affordability Petition. Or copy and paste it into your email. If you want to distribute printed copies, those can be mailed to: Austin City Council, P.O Box 1088, Austin, Texas 78767.

Come to the Public Hearings Next Thursday, the 18th

Please invite your friends and come to speak at the City Budget and Tax Rate public hearings. These will be held at 4:00 on Thursday August 18 at City Hall, 301 W. 2nd Street. You can sign up to speak on Item # 82 and Item # 84 at the kiosks in the City Hall lobby beginning next Monday, August 15th.

ALERT – City Budget Shuns Affordability With Record Tax, Utility And Fee Increases

By Bill Oakey – August 4, 2016

Before you even start reading this, get ready to think about what you can do to help. The proposed City Budget is moving like a freight train through City Hall. We don’t have much time to slow it down. What we face is a taxpayer, utility ratepayer and fee payer disaster on two major levels:

1. The budget raises property taxes by 8% above the effective rate, which is the highest allowed under Texas law, without triggering a rollback election.

2. Every utility charge and utility add-on fee is slated for increases – so high that the total dollar impact on the “typical” resident is 2.4 times higher than the record tax increase!

Hang Onto Your Hats for This One Folks – If They Raise Property Taxes 8% Every Year Going Forward, Your Taxes Will Double In 9 Years!

And if your tax appraisals keep going up, they will double a lot sooner. Now let’s take a look at what I found after reviewing the City Budgets adopted since Fiscal Year 2011. In most of those years, the effective property tax rate only increased by about half of the legal maximum of 8%:

Fiscal Year Effective Tax Rate Increase
2011 2.9%
2012 4.2%
2013 4.1%
2014 3.9%
2015 4.4%
2016 6.8%
2017 8.0% (Proposed)

You can review several years of the Austin City Budget here.

How Does the City Staff Rationalize These High Proposed Increases?

In Volume 1, Page 29 of the budget, you will find a cheerful note declaring that a “typical family” would only pay $324 per month for City taxes and fees. They state that this is only 4.8% of the median family income for our region. Well, just look at your utility bills and your property tax bills. Then, sit down with your neighbors and take a look at theirs. Ask each other how many of you would consider yourself “typical,” based on this chart in the Budget. If you live in anything larger than a small condo, your utility bills, fees and taxes are probably much higher.

But here’s the biggest flaw in the argument about City taxes and fees being “only a tiny portion” of your annual income. That doesn’t account for the long parade of other taxes from AISD, Travis County, Central Health and ACC. Of course you could isolate just one taxing entity on your total bill and claim that it isn’t really all that bad. But hey, we have to pay the entire bill! And it’s absurd to suggest that a “typical” family currently pays only $221 per month on their utility bills. The mere suggestion put forth in the City Manager’s proposed Budget that we the citizens don’t have a problem with these costs is outrageous, preposterous and insulting to our collective intelligence!

Please Share This Blog Piece With Your Neighbors, Friends and Co-Workers

Ask them to use this single-click link to email the Mayor and every City Council member. If the City Manager and his staff can’t find a way to make the City departments run more efficiently and more affordably, then it is simply time for them to hit the road!

How Could the City Council Easily Trim the Budget?

Last year I fought hard to convince them to apply cost of living pay increases on a sliding scale. The wealthy managers and executives at the top do not need the same percentage increase as the lowest paid grunt workers. Several City Council members spoke favorably of the idea and even floated various scenarios to make it happen. I pointed out that many times during my 35 year career as a State employee, the Legislature gave us flat dollar amounts as pay raises. This helped the lowest paid workers and held down the skewed impact of percentage increases.  But last year, the City Manager sent a screaming and crying letter to the City Council, complaining that the entire staff had been humiliated by the suggestion of more equitable pay increases. This caused the City Council to fold their tents and abandon the idea immediately.

But Here’s the Crazy Irony In the Situation

Year after year, City officials complain that the State will not allow a flat dollar amount to be used for the City homestead exemption on our property taxes. Every City Council for as long as I can remember has wanted the Legislature to change the law. They have argued correctly that a percentage increase in the homestead exemption favors wealthy homeowners. A 20% exemption on a $1 million home is $200,000. But for a $150,000 home, it is only $30,000.

Well, here’s my question. Why not apply that same logic to across the board pay raises for City Employees? The chart below shows what happens to lower end and higher end employees if they all get a 2.5% pay increase every year for 10 years. Ask yourself if a flat dollar amount would be more equitable. Or at least a sliding scale of some sort on the percentage amount.

City Employee Pay Raises at 2.5% Per Year
Year Low End Salary High End Salary
1 $30,000 $150,000
2 $30,750 $153,750
3 $31,519 $157,594
4 $32,307 $161,534
5 $33,114 $165,572
6 $33,942 $169,711
7 $34,791 $173,954
8 $35,661 $178,303
9 $36,552 $182,760
10 $37,466 $187,329
     
Total Increase $7,466 $37,329

You can see how the rich get richer. For the record, Politifact Texas reported that as of Sept. 1, 2014, 879 City workers earned between $100,089 and $304,657.

Let’s Put a Human Face On Austin Affordability

My friend, Todd Jones, sent me the following email and granted permission for it to be published. I can’t think of anything to add to his comments. Except that I would like for each City Council member to print it and leave it by their bedside between now and the end of the budget cycle.

Bill,

I am over 65 and my property taxes are still around $10k this year even though my AISD portion was frozen when I came ‘of age.’
My home is paid for but my taxes are far more than what I paid each year when I had a mortgage.  I am retired and my pension and social security check did not go up this year.
I just received a utility bill for over $500. for July.  This is the highest bill I have ever received during any summer month since I moved back to Austin from San Antonio in 1983.  We are not lavish when it comes to running our air conditioning.  In fact, we recently bought an expensive high SEER central air conditioner in effort to save money on our electric bill.  Apparently that was for naught given the city’s ridiculous tier system for measuring water and electricity.  We water twice a week to keep our yard from becoming a desert.

We are a man and a wife, both retired finding living in Austin un-affordable.  I suppose we receive some benefit from our taxes we pay but it’s hard to rationalize the amount we pay -vs- the benefits received.  We hope to continue living in Austin because we have a son and a grandson who live here.  However we feel like we have no representation when it comes to affordability.

While we could make a lot of money by selling our home and moving to almost anywhere else…we really would hate to pack up and leave in disgust.

(Feel free to use this letter or a portion as one example of disillusionment with living in a city and county on spending sprees that do not take in to account individuals on a fixed income or people who do not make a lot of money).

Todd

Musical dedication to the City Manager and any other staff members who do not understand affordability and who refuse to accept the notion of pay equity for City employees:

“Hit the Road Jack” – Ray Charles, 1961

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”