Under terms of a “sunset” provision, Galveston’s parking fee program on Seawall Boulevard will end in July 2020, unless the city council calls a public referendum and voters agree to extend the program.
Five of the six council members eligible for another term all expressed some form of support for the program, but several also acknowledged potential difficulties in getting the public to OK the plan a second time.
“I’m not sure if it goes back to voters that it would pass again,” District 2 Councilman Craig Brown said.
The sixth member who is eligible for re-election, Councilman Mike Doherty, of District 4, could not be reached for comment.
Voters in 2011 approved the parking fee program on Seawall Boulevard to raise money for improvements along the beach front. Voters were promised that revenues would be used to make and maintain improvements such as installing public restrooms, pedestrian lighting and bus stops.
The plan was controversial, and the ballot language specifically included a sunset provision that stipulates the program will end in 2020 unless voters decide it should continue.
The parking fee program debuted in 2013. Initial enhancements — which were paid for by a federal grant but will be maintained by the parking revenue — are just now in the final stages of completion.
“If we could get the improvements done quicker, I think we would have more buy-in to it,” District 6 Councilwoman Carolyn Sunseri said.
As of August this year, the city held $1.1 million in unused revenue from Seawall parking fees, revenue and expense reports showed.
The city began collecting fees in 2013 but transferred operations of the program to the Galveston Park Board of Trustees in late 2014. The park board covers salary and operations costs and transfers a portion of the parking revenue to the city.
Since the park board took over the program in 2014, the city has only spent $54,470 from the fund by August of this year, according to the reports. That spending occurred mostly before September 2015 and on costs associated with salary reimbursements and bank fees, the records show.
The city won’t likely use its parking revenues on new projects until it assesses the success of the Seawall Beautification Project, City Manager Brian Maxwell has said. The $6 million beautification project — paid for by a Federal Transit Administration grant — will add bathrooms, new lighting, bus stops and planter boxes to the boulevard.
The five bathrooms, dubbed Portland Loos, are the last of the project to be completed. Those beach front bathrooms are supposed to be up and running by the end of the month, city spokeswoman Jaree Fortin said.
City officials have said the plan is to use the grants to pay for construction of the enhancements, and the parking fund to pay for maintenance and upkeep of the enhancements.
Mayor Jim Yarbrough, who said he is undecided about whether to run for a third and final term, said he would ideally call a referendum on the issue for November 2019. While the program most likely wouldn’t look exactly the same as it does now, Yarbrough said he likes the revenue it brings to the city.
“We’re finally starting to see some of the benefits of that money,” Yarbrough said. “Certain things were said and committed to, it just takes a while to get some of the money and the plans. Those things are finally starting to come to fruition.”
Some council members floated ideas to change the program. Brown, for example, said he’d like to see parking on the south side of the seawall removed, both for paid and unpaid parking.
“I wouldn’t want to do that until we see what the alternatives are,” Brown said.
Sunseri said she would eventually like to see parking moved off the beach side of the seawall, although she acknowledged that wouldn’t be a likely option just yet. For now, the program seems to be effective, Sunseri said.
“I’d be in favor of extending the program just because I think it’s working,” Sunseri said. “It’s the visitors that are using the parking and it’s just a way of trying to capture some revenue from those visiting the island.”
If seawall parking isn’t renewed in 2020, maintenance costs for the enhancements would likely come from the city’s general fund, Maxwell has said.
District 5 Councilwoman Terrilyn Tarlton-Shannon, the one council member who is now term-limited and can’t run for a fourth term on her seat, said she couldn’t voice an opinion on the program until she sees the most recent revenue reports.
Councilwoman Amy Bly, of District 1, said she is at least in favor of the money the program brings to the island.
“The money from it, I know, is good,” Bly said. “I just have this one little twinge about how nothing in Galveston is free, and it would be nice to have the beach be free.”
Only Councilman Frank Maceo, of District 3, expressed wholehearted support of the program and said that it should absolutely be extended, no questions asked.
“Hell yes,” Maceo said. “Straight up, parking is a commodity on this island, and that’s the end of the story.”