Waterloo, Iowa, Airport Considers Automating Parking Lots

Aug. 18--WATERLOO -- On a recent trip to Europe, Marlene Bixby Troyer came across something she hadn't seen before.

At a German airport, Troyer went to pay for her parking, but was greeted with a machine instead. She just popped the money in, grabbed her ticket and went on her way.

"I thought, 'Gee, that's nice,' " Troyer said. "It was so convenient."

Something similar may be coming to Waterloo Regional Airport. The airport board has been working with the idea of installing automated lanes exiting the parking lot.

"What we've been looking at is more automating the process," said Brad Hagen, the airport's director.

Several airports across the country have been automating parking lots.

For example, Des Moines International Airport's newest parking lot, which opened in November, is fully automated.

Talks are still in the early stages. Hagen doesn't know how likely such a system will be.

The primary reasoning behind installing such a system is cost. Hagen said automating the toll system would save on labor costs by eliminating the part-time tollbooth positions.

"It would be in the neighborhood of about $60,000 per year," Hagen said.

Such a move would mean employees such as Gene Fitzgerald, who has worked in the tollbooth for 10 years, would be let go.

"I think it's a crock of (expletive deleted)," Fitzgerald said.

Fitzgerald said he has a number of concerns. For one, he has seen impatient drivers hop the curb to avoid waiting in line or paying the toll. Without the attendants, that could happen more frequently.

Also, should there be a problem with the machines, people may get stuck waiting on a single individual.

"They're going to get frustrated and maybe even not come back," Fitzgerald said.

Hagen said such concerns are being addressed by the airport's board of directors before any decision is made on the parking lot.

"We want to make sure there's a lot of safeguards in place that don't frustrate people," Hagen said.

Hagen said the airport is looking primarily at two systems, a paid lane system and a pay-on-foot system.

In both cases, people parking would get a ticket upon entering the parking lot, which is the lot's current setup. Hagen said the current equipment that dispenses tickets would still be used, so the airport doesn't have to fork over additional money to replace those systems, though upgrades to the systems would be required.

With the paid lane system, when people leave the airport, they put the ticket in a machine that controls the gates and pay at the machine, which will accept cash and credit or debit cards.

With the pay-on-foot system, people leaving the airport would visit a machine inside the terminal to pay for parking. Like the paid lane system, the machine would accept either credit or debit cards or cash.

After paying, the machine spits out another ticket, which is inserted in a machine controlling the gates to open them.

Under the current system, airport visitors can only pay for parking with cash or check. Checks would no longer be accepted for parking with an automated system.

"We've just had a lot of people who have asked if we accept credit or debit cards," Hagen said.

The cost of installing the systems depends on the type of system. To install a paid lane system, the airport would spend about $50,000, including upgrading the current ticket dispensers. A pay-on-foot system would be closer to $75,000.

He said should the airport board decide automation is the way to go, the airport would work with the city of Waterloo on how to pay for it.

Hagen said the earliest a system could be implemented by next spring.