Sunday, October 8, 2017

University of Texas fails to meet campus parking demands

By Taylor Jackson Buchanan (Spring 2017 Final project)

Des’ree Flores walks through a parking lot toward her black Toyota Yaris. It’s 6:15 p.m. on a Thursday evening in September. “Sucks for those people,” she thinks. A tow truck slowly leaves the lot with a vehicle hitched to the back.

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As she continues, the senior chemistry major at The University of Texas mulls over recent purchases – textbooks, tuition and a parking permit. She’s used to the “back to school” bank account squeeze and budgets carefully to afford each expense. But something is wrong. As she approaches her car, she sees an unanticipated “stupid little red tag” flapping on the windshield.

“My blood started to boil. I was so mad,” Flores said. “I saw the fine – $70 – and I was like, ‘Son of a b----! Are you kidding me?’”

Seventy-two hours before the first home football game of 2016, the university began ticketing and towing cars to make room for game day parking. However, Flores said she did not receive advance notice or see signage placed by the university. For this driver and many others – including faculty, staff and visitors – ticketing and towing for event parking is just one indication of a larger parking problem.

The urban university’s limited real estate for parking is competitive. For the few parking spots that do exist, permits are sold in excess – resulting in revenue for Parking and Transportation Services (PTS) and a strain on the 70,000 individuals who access the university on a daily basis.

For the 2016-17 school year, the university offered the fewest number of parking spaces in a decade and sold more permits than ever before. PTS sold well over 40,000 parking permits, 5,000 more than last year. At just over 15,000 spaces, permit holders lost 700 parking places from the previous year.

One number that didn’t take a hit? Revenue. PTS collected more than $17 million in permit sales and citation fees combined, the largest amount ever gathered at the school.

“PTS is a break-even department,” said Dennis Delaney, assistant director of events and operations. Parking revenue supports operations, including over $7 million in debt service for parking garages and over $1.5 million which supports the University, according to Cindy Posey, also with PTS. This includes funding for UTPD, faculty/staff access to Cap Metro and campus security initiatives like SURE walk.

Prices for parking permits are set by a committee and approved a faculty council, the Vice President of University Operations, the President of the University and the Board of Regents. In order to set these prices, the committee reviewed downtown Austin rates and the rates of peer institutions. At the time of the study, parking for faculty/staff in a garage was $34 (currently $40) and the parking rates for nearby garages just north of the downtown area ran between $60 and $162. At the same time, surface parking at UT for students was $120 (now $133) while at peer institutions, pricing ranged from a low of $115 to a high of $485. Despite the study, faculty and administrator input, the student perspective was not incorporated.

“Students aren’t rich,” Flores said. “We’re all broke. They’re gouging students with their ridiculous fines and fees.”

Flores submitted an appeal to request that the university waive her $70 parking citation in September. It was denied, and a financial bar was placed on Flores’ account that prevented her from registering for classes until she paid the fine. This is not the only academic hurdle she’s faced due to parking woes.

Flores purchased a C parking permit – a general surface permit for students – for $127. The university oversold these permits so that nearly eight students compete for every one space reserved for C permit holders.

“There have been times when I’ve been 40 minutes late to class because I can’t by any means find a parking spot,” Flores said. “I’ve even been so late that I decide it’s not even worth going to class. Like, there’s 10 minutes left. What’s the point?”

PTS oversells nearly every type of permit. Between six and seven University of Texas employees compete for every one parking space reserved for faculty and staff surface and garage permit holders. For individuals with disabilities, ADA accessible parking is competitive as well. These permits are oversold at nearly two passes to one space.

“[The current number of parking spaces] seems to work, since there has not been a day when all of the spaces on the campus have been filled,” Delaney said. He added: “The spaces might not be right outside of the building people want to park in, but spaces on campus have been open and available.”

Indeed, a handful of parking spaces on campus remain empty at times. O and F99 – permits exclusively for administrators and deans – are sold at close to a 1 to 1 ratio, almost guaranteeing that administrators and deans have a place to park. Out of the dozens of permits offered, only one pass is undersold. Athletics faculty and staff who hold a coveted F21 permit actually have about two spaces allotted for every one pass.

“It feels like the University prioritizes athletics,” Flores said. “I don’t park just to go to a game. I need to park to go to class. It’s really frustrating and it makes me feel like they see that as more important than us getting an education.”

Out of every football team in the NCAA, the UT Longhorns have been considered the most valuable for seven years in a row, according to Forbes. During the 2015-16 season, the football team brought in nearly $128 million in revenue (pocketing just under $100 million in profit). No other college team comes close to being as profitable.

To meet demand, the University continues to build facilities on campus. Within the year, PTS plans to open two garages to supplement the current parking inventory. With the addition of the East Campus Parking Garage and Rowling Hall, the university will gain 2,400 spaces. “Our goal remains to be in the 15,000-16,000 space range, but most of these spaces will eventually be garage based,” Delaney said.

Delaney is a Certified Administrator of Public Parking – one of only 300 worldwide. The university has two CAPPs and over 150 years of combined experience in parking. “PTS is highly respected throughout the parking industry,” Delaney said. The University of Texas’ chapter was named the 2016 Parking Organization of the Year by the International Parking Institute.

“The University is land locked in an urban environment,” Delaney said. “There is a reason that permits exist and that there is a cost to park on campus.”

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