More parking at PHL|
More parking. Less aggravation. Maybe. The Philadelphia Parking Authority plans to expand its crowded Philadelphia International Airport economy lot in about a year, by leveling the largely empty Overseas Terminal on Island Avenue. The authority, which operates the airport's surface parking lots and five garages, also plans to add automation at exits. Customers will be able to pay with a credit or debit card - and no cashier - which should reduce waiting at busy times, authority officials say. Longer term, the authority is considering E-ZPass lanes at the exits, but officials do not know when that may happen. Adding parking could not come soon enough for people such as Richard Lyntton, an actor and London native who lives in Lafayette Hill, Montgomery County. In April, he had two frustrating trips to the airport, one when he picked up his 70-year-old mother, who uses a wheelchair, when she was visiting from England, and another two weeks later, when he dropped her off. Both times, garages and lots were full, forcing him to circle the airport several times and risk being towed when he gave up and stopped at the Terminal A curb. "It was a nightmare," Lyntton said. "I thought, 'This is just insane for an international airport.' " Many airport users have reported parking problems since 2004, when Southwest Airlines started service here, pushing fares down and traffic up as US Airways and other carriers matched its prices. A record 31.5 million passengers used the airport last year, 10.5 percent more than 2004. Expanding the economy lot will add up to 2,000 spaces to the 6,300 available now, said Frank Ragozzino, the authority's director of airport operations. The expansion will come at the same time the extension of the airport's short, north-south Runway 17-35 will require the authority to give up several hundred existing spaces in the lot, he said. There are no plans to add capacity to the garages, which have about 11,000 spaces, Parking Authority officials said. An additional 18,000 spaces are available in private, off-airport lots. The 1,400-foot extension of Runway 17-35 also will require moving the economy lot's entrance and exit to Island Avenue, next to the Overseas Terminal site, from its current location closer to the airport terminals. Vehicles leaving the lot now exit onto a portion of Route 291 that will be closed permanently with its traffic rerouted onto Bartram Avenue. Moving the exit "will help traffic flow in and out of the airport," said Aviation Director Charles J. Isdell. Demolishing the Overseas Terminal and expanding the economy lot will cost the airport from $6 million to $7 million, Isdell estimated. But the added spaces will generate about $4 million a year in revenue for the airport, he said. The Parking Authority shares its airport revenue with the city - about $31 million in fiscal 2006, ending June 30. The city-owned airport uses no local tax money, paying for its operations from parking, aircraft landing fees, and space rentals to airlines and vendors. The loss of the Overseas Terminal, a former hangar on the west side of Island Avenue, probably will not be mourned by many travelers who used it for international flights from 1973 to 1991, when the airport opened new facilities in Terminal A. The cavernous building was drafty, threadbare, and almost a mile from the main terminal. Passengers and airline officials alike complained that it was a poor introduction to the city for foreign visitors. Recently, the big blue building has been used for storage and as a gym for airport employees. Occasionally, it has served as workspace for the White House press corps during presidential visits, when Air Force One would be parked at the building. Isdell said airport officials believed they could find other storage and recreation space in abandoned buildings on the east side of Island Avenue. No decision has been made about where the White House press corps might work, he said. Linda Miller, the Parking Authority's director of facilities and public affairs, said technology would help solve some of the parking-space problems and the occasional long waits to pay at garage exits. The authority is installing devices that digitally record license-plate numbers for each vehicle that enters, providing a better way to know when garages are full, as well as the time a vehicle arrived, in case of lost tickets. The authority plans to install large electronic screens known as scoreboards along the airport's entry roads, telling drivers where parking is available. People already can get up-to-the-minute information about parking availability and flight delays on the authority's Web site, www.philapark.org, where they also can sign up to receive e-mail alerting them of a delay. Ragozzino said the credit-card-only lanes at exits should help traffic move out of surface lots and garages more quickly. Some garage parkers have complained of waiting as long as 35 minutes to pay. Inclement weather that causes airline flight delays also causes delays at parking exits, the authority officials said. "I think you would find the same thing at other airports," Ragozzino said. The Parking Authority is not considering what the parking industry calls "pay on foot," a method in use in some Center City garages and at other airports. Customers pay for their parking before they go to their vehicle, allowing them to exit by inserting a receipt in a card reader. The layout of Philadelphia's airport, with many terminals and garages and dozens of access points, would make "pay on foot" confusing to customers and hard to manage, Ragozzino said. The authority has no timetable for installing the E-ZPass system at the airport. Because the agency is not a part of the system now, it's not clear how long it would take, or how complex it would be, to join it, Miller said. E-ZPass is in use at parking facilities at the New York area's three airports, which are run by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, one of the first participants in the system. It took the Delaware River Port Authority almost three years from the time it began planning to install E-ZPass on its Philadelphia-area bridges in 1997 to get the system operating. "That's a big project," Ragozzino said, one that is "not done overnight."