Travelers' Dollars Will Pay for Expanded Parking at Texas Airport

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. …

"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.

Short-term parking, nearest the terminal, is 75 cents for the first 20 minutes and 50 cents for each additional 20 minutes, up to a maximum of $5.75 per day. The more remote long-term parking is $1.25 for the first hour and $1 for each additional hour, up to a maximum of $4.50 per day.

"It is staffed," Browning said of the parking facilities, "but we are also working towards having an automated lane where somebody could present a credit card and just drive on out without even seeing anybody."

Browning said he's not surprised McAllen has decided to pursue paid parking, given the narrowing gap between parking usage and parking capacity here.

"From the outside looking in, it looks like McAllen has probably needed paid parking for quite a while," he said. "I'm kind of surprised it's taken this long to do it."

Browning and Michael Jones, business development director at Brownsville/South Padre Island International Airport, said their airports differ from the McAllen airport in an important way: They don't have the same problem with parking capacity that the McAllen airport has.

Brownsville, like McAllen, currently offers free parking, even with enplanements increasing about 15 percent last year, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future, Jones said.

"We're working on a plan to expand our parking, too, but at this time there's no plans to charge for that, because we compete more with Harlingen than we do with McAllen," he said.

"We are by far the most efficient airport in the (Rio Grande Valley), and maybe even in Texas, and so we don't see a need to charge. And in fact, we think it's better for us not to charge at this time, because it's another reason to fly Brownsville."

And unlike the McAllen airport, which is gradually being boxed in by surrounding development, the Brownsville airport has no shortage of nearby land for expansion.

"We have all kinds of space," Jones said. "There's still plenty of land here and plenty of room for us to expand."

So if McAllen has so little room to expand its existing airport, why doesn't it just build a new airport at a location where there's adequate land for future growth?

"They're very, very expensive," Perez said. "If we wanted to build a new airport, where are you going to find a thousand acres where you don't have homes that you're relocating? So we have to take a look at how we can protect a major asset of our community."

City staff is preparing a request for proposals that will help the City Commission determine whether to manage the paid parking system on its own or contract out that work. Also to be decided is whether to go with a staffed parking system or an automated parking system.

Fred Segundo, assistant director of aviation at the McAllen airport, said he hopes to have the proposals ready in time to present them to the City Commission by early February, probably during a workshop.

"We're also planning to do an airport terminal capacity study," he said.

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Marc B. Geller covers McAllen and general assignments for The Monitor. You can reach him at (956) 683-4445.

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