Orlando airport to spend $172M on new parking garage despite empty spots

May 9, 2013

Orlando International Airport officials are so confident about future business that they’re building  a $172 million parking garage. What is puzzling about the project, however, is that the OIA already has thousands of open parking spots available. According to reports, the airport’s parking never sells out.

The Orlando Sentinel  reports, “It is common for fewer than half of the spots to be taken, according to a consultant’s report released in February. During 2011, the airport hit a top occupancy of 79 percent on Thanksgiving weekend, the report showed.”

Despite empty parking lots and a steady drop in parking revenues, the airport authorities justify the need for a 3,500 space parking garage by saying that it will accommodate the expected increase in passengers. The project would also improve rental-car operations and serve the proposed train system that would link Orlando International with South Florida.

The total expected cost of the entire project, including parking, a tram, and related road and utility work, is around $470 million. No schedule has been announced for its construction, but work could begin when a financing plan is worked out.

The money for the new project will be raised “by extending fees already paid by airline passengers and others, including a $2.50 surcharge on every car rented at OIA.”

The Orlando International board chairman, Frank Kruppenbacher, claims that the proposed parking is part of a master plan that “allows the Aviation Authority to design and construct the facilities in an affordable manner while incrementally meeting passenger demands.” U.S. Rep. John Mica also strongly supports the garage construction. He points out that if modern facilities to accommodate people exist, passengers will come.

Director Phil Brown of the OIA expects improved tourist attractions to draw as many as 10 million passengers within the next five years. It is unclear what this prediction is based on; the airport’s passenger count fell to about 35.3 million from 35.5 million last year.

. Critics find the project premature or unnecessary. For Doug Head of the County Watch, a tax-watchdog group, the garage is “ridiculous,” and OIA is “spending money to spend money.”

A study conducted by SchenkelShultz, an architectural firm, reveals that plenty of parking space is available every day at the airport, and the overnight occupancy is just 50 percent. The study shows that occupancy rates are higher during the daytime, with a five hour peak from 10 am to 3 pm. The increased occupancy is due to the use of the terminal top by 550 airport employees and various contractors. The terminal, which has a capacity of 1, 649 vehicles, requires payment from contractors but is free for the OIA employees.

Currently, the airport has 17,000 parking spots, including 9,000 garage spots and 8,000 in surface lots. It charges $10 and $17 a day for different spots, depending on the location. Due to the high parking rates, people opt for alternatives like taking a taxi or a bus, preferring to be dropped off, or parking at a private lot that charges less.

But even these extra lots are not filling up. Fast Park & Relax, one of the private parking companies that charges $7.50 a day, never gets overflow customers from the airport. And though demand has been growing, the private lots are only 80-85% occupied, even in the peak summer season. The company manager, Adrian Galeano, said that expansion would only be justified if the level of occupancy was that high (80-85%) throughout the year.

Compared with Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, which offers one parking spot per eight passengers, and Miami International Airport with one spot per 12 passengers, OIA already offers one parking spot per five passengers. Critics say that’s plenty of parking for an airport where more than 70% of the passengers are tourists who rely on shuttles or rental cars instead of parking their own vehicles.

Randy Gillespie, director of airport affairs at Orlando International’s largest carrier, Southwest Airlines, said that he is against the garage and called it a way for the airport to justify building the southern terminal.

According to the Orlando Sentinel, after the opposition from the airlines and the paper’s story, airport Director Brown said that the plans for the project have been put off for a year or so, until the airport develops passenger-count triggers to decide when the construction should occur.

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