Parking Firm Will Fight Richmond Airport Fee

Sep. 14--The owner of the only private parking company serving Richmond's airport plans to fight a new fee he calls an attempt to drive him out of business.

"Their own documentation says they want to get rid of us," said John Bona, president of Florida-based Park 'N Go. "They're saying to get rid of them, let's tax them more and they'll go away."

Airport officials denied the allegation yesterday. Chief Financial Officer Douglas Blum said the fee, approved by the airport commission Aug. 30, is needed to keep pace with rising operating costs.

The resolution was passed unanimously by the Capital Region Airport Commission, which represents Richmond and the counties of Chesterfield, Hanover and Henrico. It calls for Park 'N Go to pay the airport 8 percent of its gross revenue each year, in addition to another user fee.

What would happen if the parking operator refused to pay up? "They don't get to operate," Blum said.

Opened shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, the private facility near Williamsburg Road has been in a quiet price war with the airport. Park 'N Go also touts customer services, such as free repair of flat tires.

The airport has a commercial drop-off lane, which it monitors for daily usage. Every company that uses the lane is charged.

The airport's lowest parking fee is $6 a day, which beats the private facility's posted price of $6.99. But Park 'N Go offers corporate discounts that can drop the price by up to 20 percent, or to $5.60 a day.

Blum said the new fee is meant "for the benefit of the entire airport," which is trying to offset higher operating expenses.

But Bona, a self-described history buff, said the commission is violating his constitutional rights as a property owner.

"The founders knew the right to property was vital to ensure happiness," he said, quoting Thomas Jefferson and George Mason. "We can't be free without being secure in our own property."

Bona vowed to "fight this to the bitter end."

Asked if he anticipated a court challenge, Bona said, "I don't want to threaten anybody. We will look at all our legal rights."

Bona said that he's especially concerned about a part of the airport's resolution that says "the Commission is currently able to meet the parking needs of its customers and expects to continue meeting those needs into the foreseeable future." This indicates that the regional commissioners "don't want Park$'N Go," he said.

Commission chairman James B. Donati Jr. could not be reached for comment. Commissioner Thomas Pruitt said, "I don't think it's directed at Park 'N Go at all. I think the airport's just providing a heck of a market for somebody that operates off-campus."

The resolution does not name Park 'N Go, citing only "off-airport parking lot operators." Park 'N Go is the only operator, though.

The resolution doesn't apply to hotel shuttles, taxis or limousine services that pay fees to operate at the airport -- the same kind of pick-up and drop-off charges paid by Park 'N Go.

With 750 parking spaces, the private operator is only one-tenth the size of the airport's parking operation, which has 7,500 spaces in garages and surface lots.

Park 'N Go paid the airport $33,000 in 2004 -- or about 4.25 percent of its total revenue here, Bona said.

His company operates at seven airports, but none requires an annual chunk of his revenue, Bona said.

That will change when he starts operating at Orlando International Airport. But Bona said the passenger base at the Florida airport -- about 30 times Richmond -- will make up for its revenue charge.

"We'd never go into a market the size of Richmond and know up front there's a huge fee," Bona said.

Adding the 8 percent fee to his trip fees means he'll pay more than 12 percent of total revenue each year.

Norfolk International Airport has a similar 8 percent requirement for off-site parking operators. But none currently is doing business at the airport, officials said.

In 2004, another company, Park Shuttle N Fly, sued Norfolk International over its policy. A federal judge ruled in the airport's favor in December 2004, according to a report in The Virginian-Pilot.

U.S. District Judge Raymond A. Jackson determined that the fee was in line with what other airports charge, the newspaper said.