Bile on the Isle

Passengers from a cruise ship had more than the usual sailing stories to share as they returned to the Galveston Waterfront Ventures parking lot near the Port of Galveston's two cruise terminals.

Lot employees Jocelyn Howell and Tiffany Robledo heard some of their customers tell that a soon-to-be-demolished grain elevator was crumbling, sending debris cascading to the roadway near Harborside Drive. To document the apparent safety hazard, the workers grabbed a camera and drove off in Howell's Ford pickup to the aging elevator on port property.

They expected to get videotape of the fallen rubble -- it was the handcuffs that turned out to be the surprise.

At about 1:30 p.m. on that July 5, two port police vehicles approached the 18-year-olds, even though there was no restricted access to the elevator area. Cops stopped the young women's truck and slapped the cuffs on Robledo for about ten minutes. An officer issued a warning ticket for criminal trespass, and police sent the two teens home -- only after confiscating their videotape.

One day later, Sylvia Robledo -- the parking lot's operations manager and mother of Tiffany -- and Howell were helping their customers inside the cruise terminal get in line to board buses back to the parking lot.

Howell saw a now-familiar figure approaching. He was the same cop who had ticketed her the previous day. Howell says the officer voiced surprise that she was even on port property after the previous day's confrontation. This time, she was the recipient of the steel bracelets.

"He put the cuffs on me for about 30 minutes, said I was under arrest several times, then said I was only detained," says Howell. Meanwhile, Sylvia Robledo was on the phone with the lot owner and his attorney, trying to diffuse the situation.

The two young women had briefly become POWs of sorts in the escalating battle of the parking lots being waged around the popular Galveston terminal complex.

What started 12 months ago as a skirmish over a share of the island's lucrative cruise-ship parking business has morphed into a complex standoff involving accusations of police interference, a foot-high pile of court documents, a disputed 20-foot easement of railway line, lobbying by a state senator, clandestine camera work and boatloads of verbal sniping.

Like buccaneers of old, the opposing parties both target the not-so-hidden treasures of Galveston's booming cruise industry. Passenger ships began arriving in the fall of 2000, and the industry now regards the city as one of the fastest-growing markets in the United States. It is quickly closing in on cruise stalwart Tampa, Florida, in numbers of passengers served.

The cruise industry pumped an estimated $445 million worth of economic benefits into Texas in 2002. The port budget states that it brought in $2.8 million in parking revenue last year.

Galveston is regarded by the industry as a "drive-to" destination because of its proximity to major metropolitan areas. By the end of this month, some 350,000 passengers will have embarked on cruises from the Port of Galveston. That translates into hundreds of vehicles regularly snaking their way down Harborside Drive toward the two port-owned cruise-ship terminals. Cars are parked from four to 12 days at rates ranging from $45 to $90.

"The growth was so phenomenal, it caught everyone by surprise," says port director Stephen Cernak. "We were scrambling to secure more parking capacity while the growth was occurring."

Cernak says the port last year was trying to acquire a site for parking near Harborside at 33rd Street, although its competitor "was a step ahead and bought it."

Businessman Tom Flanagan, a Beaumont developer and owner of J.J. Flanagan Shipping, scooped up the property to launch his Galveston Waterfront Ventures parking enterprise, popularly known as the Dolphin lots. His shipping business earlier snared a lucrative stevedoring contract with Carnival and Royal Caribbean lines to handle their passenger baggage and ships' stores on the docks.

On January 3, GWV and its 25 employees opened a two-acre, 350-space Dolphin Cruise Ship Parking facility, about eight blocks from the cruise terminals on 25th Street. GWV subsequently expanded operations to a second, smaller location at 29th and Harborside.

It appeared to be a textbook case for free enterprise: a savvy entrepreneur outperforming a public agency operation.

The parking lots that the port runs require passengers to first drive to the terminal and unload baggage. Then customers have to drive back to the port lot, then catch a shuttle bus to return and board the ship. Flanagan offered one-stop service -- Dolphin patrons merely drive into a parking space, then load themselves and their baggage on the shuttle bus for the trip to the ship.

"The port's approach just didn't seem so customer-friendly, and we didn't think people would want to drop off their bags and maybe leave their wife or elderly parent alone while they went back to park and then wait for the bus to come back," says Flanagan. "The port saw us as a threat and has been after us ever since. They consider us parasites."

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Greg Barr
Contact: Greg Barr