Jan. 16--McALLEN -- Free parking at McAllen-Miller International Airport is about to fly out the window as city officials seek proposals for how best to implement parking fees.
The McAllen City Commission approved paid parking in concept at its regular meeting Oct. 10 as one of several steps toward accommodating growing demand at the city-owned airport, where enplanements -- the number of people boarding for scheduled or nonscheduled aircraft service -- increased nearly 16 percent, from 317,806 to 368,492 in 2005 alone.
And as recently as last week, the commission authorized the city attorney to make an offer to purchase 6.16 acres of land -- officials aren't disclosing the location -- in order to expand the existing parking capacity at the airport. Currently parking is free for up to 14 days, though approval is required for longer durations.
Time isn't exactly on the city's side as it races to keep up with parking demand, according to the 2005 Airport Master Plan Update city contractor HNTB Corp. put together. The consultant warns that "the threshold for new passenger parking spaces will be approached by the end of 2006" and projects that "there are an adequate number of public parking spaces through about 2007."
Although the airport's "most critical need" for the long term is land for future expansion and gradual growth, according to the HNTB report, land needed for parking and other facilities expansion is "equally as critical" in the long term.
Four of the 16 major facilities needs identified in the report relate to parking: expanding short- and long-term parking, possibly building a parking garage, relocating facilities to make room for additional parking and acquiring land to make room for additional parking.
"A future vehicular parking expansion eastward into the general aviation area will begin the rotating exercise of displacing facilities which will, after a short period, require additional airport land purchase," HNTB predicted. "Short-term relocations for facilities should be avoided since this is a duplication of expense."
Currently, the airport has more than 1,700 spaces, including nearly 230 short-term spaces, about 860 long-term spaces, 410 overflow parking spaces (which include employee parking) and about 210 spaces for rental-vehicle parking.
"Our market share has continued to grow over the last few years in McAllen versus Harlingen and Brownsville," City Manager Mike Perez said of the airport
"As a result of that, we're starting to have a parking problem. It's a good problem to have, because it means more people are flying out of McAllen. It's a bad thing to have, to an extent, for the users, because we're going to have to take a look at paid parking. â€¦
"Depending on the growth rate that we have, at some point we may have to be looking at a parking structure in front of the airport. And I hope that's a problem that we end up having."
Part of the more immediate problem, Perez said, is that the free parking provides little incentive for people to carpool to the airport or arrange to be dropped off there.
"We're going to have to look at paid parking so it kind of encourages people to be more efficient in using the parking space," he said.
Perez also expects paid parking to make the airport more self-sufficient in that it will be less reliant on the subsidy it receives from the city's general fund.
Valley International Airport, in Harlingen, has had paid parking since 1975, when Southwest Airlines first began service there, said T. Michael Browning, the airport's director of aviation.
"The airport board who runs the airport over here has always had the opinion that the airport should pay for itself," Browning said. "They've always had the approach that the people who actually use the airport should pay for the airport instead of just general taxpayers."
Standard Parking Corp. staffs and manages the 24-hour parking facilities at the Harlingen airport in exchange for a percentage of the gross revenue the facilities generate.
The news delivered a disappointing blow to Valley International Airport officials who have striven to attract the major air carrier to Harlingen.
A Texas company is planning to develop an air cargo facility for goods moving to and from Mexico.
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