Parking Lot Operator Pulling Out of Missouri Airport

The company that operates the city's parking lot at Columbia (Mo.) Regional Airport has decided to pull the plug at the faltering facility, but city officials are optimistic the decision could have a silver lining.

Chattanooga, Tenn.-based Republic Parking told city officials in February it would not renew its contract, which expires Wednesday. Republic had managed airport parking since 1992.

Last year, the company paid the city $36,342 in rent and a percentage of ticket sales.

Republic Vice President Alan Doherty said the agreement with the city had been "a losing contract for a number of years."

The recent decision by AmericanConnection operator Trans States Airlines to leave the market in June was the final straw, he said. "It's just hard to operate a parking facility with the widely scattered schedule we had," he said.

But the pullout by Republic gives city officials an opportunity to test a theory that offering free parking at the airport could be one way to lure more passenger traffic and stop the bleeding at the city-owned facility.

Beginning Wednesday, the city will find out if that's true. Parking will be free for at least one year, airport Manager Kathy Frerking told airport advisory board members yesterday.

"It's a good idea to try," board member Larry Foster said this morning. "Especially if the city can make up for the lost revenue another way."

The city is applying for a Small Community Air Service Development grant worth $250,000 to $300,000 that requires matching funds from the city. Lost revenues from offering free parking can be counted as matching funds, she said.

Grant money is earmarked to improve community air service and can be used for a variety of purposes, including discounting ticket prices and promoting the airport.

The city hired consultants Mead & Hunt of Eugene, Ore., to file the grant application, complete a passenger-demand analysis and gather other data, Frerking said. The consultant contract cost $28,000 and the city should know this fall if it got the grant, she said.

Passenger boardings at the city airport have been in a tailspin for more than a decade, falling some 46 percent since 1993.

Last year, boardings were up about 11 percent from 2004. This year, however, boardings through March are 10 percent lower than the same period in 2005.

To make matters worse, the airport lost its only commercial airline when Trans States announced in February its plans to pull out of the market.

The U.S. Department of Transportation today posted notice on its Web site requesting bids for replacement airline service under the minimum-service provisions of the Airline Deregulation Act, said Bill Mosley, a department of transportation spokesman.

The transportation department will review bids and study financial and passenger traffic data to determine minimum service levels and any subsidy necessary to provide it.

"The incumbent airline must continue to serve the market until a replacement airline is selected," Mosley said.

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