It's a good thing that Tampa International Airport officials backed away from ending the first-hour-free parking policy.
Why? Because of the potential embarrassment for TIA's governing board. The five members enjoy a little-known perk: an airport ID that gives them free parking at any time, for any reason.
So far this year, board member Dr. Joseph Diaco parked for nearly a month in the $20-a-day short-term garage over the main terminal. Not in dribs and drabs, but for two vacations — a 10-day California trip starting Memorial Day weekend and while spending the first 18 days of July in New York. The price for regular folks: $560.
Diaco strongly backed the recent plan to stop giving drivers an hour free in the short- and long-term garages. About 1.2 million drivers a year, 40 percent of all vehicles that park at TIA, stay less than an hour and pay nothing. Most board members predictably gave the idea a chilly response.
On Thursday, board members are expected to hear a revised proposal that TIA eliminate the free hour only for customers staying more than 60 minutes.
Board chairman Al Austin welcomes the new plan. He also has rung up numerous free days of parking a TIA. Austin parked in the short-term garage last year for a summer trip and a Christmas vacation that spilled into the new year.
This month, he parked in the short-term again for a two-day visit to Kansas City related to Tampa's bid for the 2012 Republican National Convention. His total since July 2009: 20 days that would have cost you $400.
To be absolutely clear, Diaco and Austin acted fully within the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority's rules.
Former executive director Louis Miller encouraged board members to use the ID for whatever they pleased: dinner at airport restaurants, picking up friends and family or taking off on personal trips.
Austin and Diaco point out they don't get paid by the authority. They spend multiple hours each month sifting through agendas, getting briefed by staff and attending board meetings. What's the big deal? they ask.
"I don't apologize for anything," said Diaco, a retired surgeon and former Tampa Bay Buccaneers team doctor.
Ask their fellow board members — Mayor Pam Iorio, County Commissioner Ken Hagan and Steven Burton, managing partner of a Tampa law firm — and you get a different answer. They use courtesy parking only for board meetings and other agency business. Parking records back them up.
"If I have any (other) reason to go to the airport," Iorio said, "I pay personally."
Burton wrote the authority a $120 check from his firm in December after presenting his airport ID for parking, by mistake, he says, on a five-day trip in December. He and Iorio won't criticize Austin and Diaco. "It's just what I'm comfortable doing … a personal choice," Burton said.
Years back, the airport larded up its free parking list with Tampa Bay legislators and former board members who kept their passes for life. That ended in 2006.
Courtesy parking now is limited to authority board members, employees and 15 local consuls who represent foreign countries in Tampa Bay. By state law, the airport provides free parking for vehicles with special equipment, such as ramps, lifts, and hand or foot controls for the disabled.
Board members have the final say on parking rates at TIA. How does it look when they consider sticking it to Joe Public while a retired surgeon and a real estate heavyweight run up hundreds of bucks in personal freebies?
Let me offer a tip: The economy garage is just $9 a day. A shuttle leaves for the main terminal every seven minutes or so. You'll love it.
Steve Huettel can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3384.