Sky high costs; Gerald Ford Airport should consider grounding plans for grand new parking garage

The escalating price tag of a covered parking ramp at Gerald R. Ford International Airport ought to be an economic reality check for airport leaders. They need to seriously think about whether it's time to abort takeoff on this costly project and put the focus on more pertinent areas of customer service.

The lowest construction bid for the four-story garage came in at $118 million -- nearly $14 million higher than expected. The total cost of the project, including permits and fees, would be $134 million, if the low bid is accepted. That's a lot of money to spend on a project that doesn't address the most pressing needs of the airport's customers -- more flights, bigger planes, fewer delays -- while adding to parking costs.

The airport plans to issue bonds to finance the bulk of the ramp construction, but the public will have a hand in directly paying for the project. Money from parking and rental car fees will be used to repay the bond. Parking rates will increase -- from $8 a day now to perhaps $10 to $15 a day or more. The high bids provide an opportunity for airport officials to reassess this project and decide if this is where the airport's emphasis ought to be at this time.

Ford Airport recently landed at the top of a national magazine's most miserable list. Passengers flying into or out of the airport have a greater chance of being on a plane that's crowded and late, than at any other regional airport in the country. While the ranking isn't an indictment of the airport itself, it is an indictment of the level of service provided this area by the airlines. Airport Director James Koslosky and the Kent County Aeronautics Board ought to focus their efforts on service necessities before proceeding with expensive amenities.

Commercial carriers must be convinced to add more seats and flights for area customers. And airport officials must redouble their efforts to attract a low-cost carrier. The addition of a low-cost carrier could put competitive pressure on other airlines to expand service and reduce fares. The average round-trip fare at Ford Airport was about $20 more than the national average of $379.80 for the first three months of the year. Teaming with airports in Kalamazoo and Muskegon to put together a deal that could attract a low-cost carrier such as Southwest Airlines ought to be explored. Individually, none of the airports have the customer volume to fill Southwest's planes. But a little regional cooperation might work to everyone's advantage.

What good is a grand parking edifice if people aren't using the airport because they can't get the flights they need to get where they want to go in a timely manner? Or if parking rates are so high they drive patrons away or convince them to use other modes of travel?

Certainly airport parking is a necessity. Plans for a ramp have been in the works for more than five years. However, the original $60 million price tag has ballooned primarily because of extras that include skybridges from the garage to the terminal and an overhead canopy to protect visitors from inclement weather. The unique glass-and-steel canopy roof adds about $20 million to the project.

Airport passengers certainly would appreciate not having to brave winter snow or rain, but it's unlikely that travelers will cancel plans to visit the area because there is no covered garage at the airport.

Before this project is given the green light, the airport board must convince the public that it is setting a reasonable -- and cost-conscious -- course.