Bile on the Isle

The wild fight between an entrepreneur and the Galveston port for loot from cruise-ship lots

Just like parking companies soliciting the motorists heading to Houston's Bush Intercontinental Airport, location can be paramount for profits in Galveston's cruise-parking battle.

Flanagan seemed to score a major competitive coup when he gained the real estate to route customers to his westside lot from the main traffic artery of Harborside. That meant that cruise passengers heading to the terminals would see his Dolphin lot as the first entrance for parking -- raising the probability of his snagging them as customers.

Jocelyn Howell and Tiffany and Sylvia Robledo have risked arrest in their efforts to establish a private parking service.
Greg Barr
Jocelyn Howell and Tiffany and Sylvia Robledo have risked arrest in their efforts to establish a private parking service.

Court documents show that to open Harborside access to one of his lots, Flanagan signed a $2,000-a-month lease with Farmer's Copper & Marine for adjoining property. However, the final link for the access took him to the courthouse as well as to the lot. Flanagan repaved a crossing over a 20-foot-wide railway track on the leased land. The rail line was seldom used, although it had been deeded to the City of Galveston in 1982, and therefore was in possession of the port, it claimed.

So the port sued, alleging the parking company was trespassing on the property, because it had not received permission to use that land.

The port's Cernak insists the lawsuit has nothing to do with competition and everything to do with liability.

"This is the United States and it was created under a free enterprise system. We really don't have a problem with the competition and we're not about stifling competition like [Flanagan] has alleged," Cernak says.

He insists that Flanagan ignored warnings of litigation if he pushed ahead with plans to repave the rail crossing, and that liability is the central issue. "That 20-foot-strip of property isn't his, it's mine," Cernak says, meaning it belongs to the port. There are plans to increase usage of the train tracks, he says, believing that the parking company would try to duck responsibility in the event of a lawsuit over an accident.

"I would be willing to venture that he would say, 'It's not my problem, I don't own that land, go after the port,' even though he paved the road there."

State District Judge Norma Venso agreed with some of the port's arguments last spring, granting a partial summary judgment that blocks the company or passengers from crossing the tracks. The Dolphin lot workers now route customers through the lot's eastside entrance off 33rd Street, although the court ruling has hardly quelled the controversies.

Flanagan has countersued, contending that the port has violated antitrust laws and equal-protection safeguards in harassing a legitimate private business venture.

Another showdown looms for the start of 2004, when the port intends to begin enforcing its recently enacted fees for commercial vehicles using the port.

An initial licensing fee of $250 will be charged, along with $50 for annual renewals, plus a $10 fee per trip for passenger buses or hotel courtesy vans. Taxis and limousines will not pay per-trip fees, but will be charged a onetime annual decal fee of $7.50 and $10, respectively.

"From what we know of [Flanagan's] vehicle trips, his access charges will be about $70,000 a year in round numbers," Cernak says. "He hasn't had to pay one cent of the tariff because of the litigation, but we intend to enforce it on January 1." While the parking company sees the charges as further indication of harassment, the port director defends the fees as necessary to cover port-related transportation and security expenses. Rates are similar to those charged by airports and other cruise terminals, he says.

At the threat from the initial fee proposal, Flanagan enlisted the help of state Senator Kyle Janek, who sponsored a bill that would have outlawed the access charges for shuttle buses and other vehicles delivering passengers to the cruise terminal. Intense lobbying from the port and Galveston Mayor Roger Quiroga led to the bill's eventual demise in the last regular legislative session.

"This tariff would make it impossible for us to conduct business, which is blatantly unfair," Flanagan says, alluding to it as another attempt by the port to create a monopoly. "Janek was a politician who saw what was happening and didn't ride the fence. He saw it as Galveston politics at its worst."

Other governmental entities have joined in the fray. City officials threatened to step up enforcement efforts against what the port contended were infractions of the sign ordinance by Dolphin lot workers. They decried Flanagan's marketing, which included using dolphin costumes and banners to help entice customers to those lots.

"You don't see people out by Bush airport waving flags at people," Cernak says, as if cruise-ship passengers prefer somber settings. "He's entitled to do what he can to stay in business, but just do it fairly."

While port officials take offense at the gimmicks used by the Dolphin crews to hustle business, the company claims those efforts are nothing compared to what the port has done to deliver customers: used its own police to draw them in.

Attorneys for the Dolphin lots managed to get Robledo's seized videotape back from the port, and another videotape shows an official port police vehicle is parked in the middle of Harborside, just across from a Dolphin lot. Its emergency lights are blazing. Dolphin representatives say the officer is blocking the street to prevent customers from getting to the private parking lot, and he is directing that same traffic down Old Port Industrial Road, to the port-operated lot.

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