TAMPA — One of the few freebies at Tampa International might be on its way out.
Interim executive director John Wheat wants to end first-hour-free parking in the short- and long-term garages.
Airport officials first waived the charge in 2005, when congestion outside the main terminal caused friction between drivers waiting to pick up passengers and police determined to keep traffic moving. Free parking helped clear the curbs. But it's not necessary anymore, Wheat said Thursday.
The airport built a free cell phone lot where drivers wait and watch boards displaying flight-arrival times before picking up passengers. A corps of customer-friendly traffic specialists replaced cops with guns and badges at the curbs. And passenger traffic has dropped significantly in recent years.
Currently, no matter how long you stay in the garage, the first hour is free. Airport officials say four out of 10 vehicles that park at Tampa International stay less than an hour and don't pay a cent.
That costs the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority serious money. If the agency ends free parking, drivers would pay $1 for first 20 minutes, $3 for the first hour. Wheat estimated the change would generate an addition $2.2 million a year.
Wheat made the recommendation when he presented the authority's budget for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1. His bosses on the authority's board were mostly cool to the idea.
"I'd hate to see any increased cost put on the people of the community," said board chairman Al Austin. He also worried conflicts between drivers and officers would resume.
Airport staffers estimate 500 to 700 more cars a day — 35 to 50 in peak hours — would crowd the curbs if free parking is eliminated. Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan suggested the estimate might be low.
"When there are changes in tax policy and fees, the consumers reacts accordingly," he said. "You might receive less revenue than you expect."
But Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio warned that pulling items out of a budget in lean years can have unintended consequences. Keeping the hour of free parking could require other cuts that people won't like, she said.
The authority's proposed budget anticipates a modest 2.2 percent increase in passengers for the coming year after three years of decline. Operating revenue is projected to grow 6.6 percent to nearly $174 million. The agency will eliminate 42 positions and lay off 20 employees.
Most of the cuts will come from the planning and development staff because declining passenger numbers means postponing construction projects.
The free parking would end Oct. 1 if the authority board approves the proposal on Sept. 2.
Steve Huettel can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3384.