The most popular perk at Tampa International will probably survive the airport's budget crunch for another year.
Earlier this month, interim executive director John Wheat proposed ending first-hour-free parking in the airport's short- and long-term garages, starting Oct. 1. The change would raise $2.2 million in new revenue in a tight year, he said.
But Wheat changed his mind after talking with his bosses on the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority board and hearing from airport visitors. He will recommend at Thursday's board meeting that members keep the freebie, with a slight change.
Currently, no matter how long you stay in the garage, the first hour is free. Under the proposed new policy, it's free only if you leave before the hour is up. Otherwise, you'll pay $3.
That will generate $440,000 a year for the airport. The rest of the revenue lost by keeping free parking will come from delaying construction projects, such as remodeling the office that serves private plane pilots at Peter O. Knight Airport.
The first-hour-free policy was introduced in 2005, when congestion outside the main terminal tied up traffic and caused friction between drivers and officers.
Wheat said the airport's cell phone lot took pressure off the traffic flow. Between 500 and 700 more cars per day — 35 to 50 in peak hours — would return to the curbs if free parking were eliminated, airport staffers said.
But to Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, the appeal of free parking was giving customers a convenience without any cost.
"It's very convenient if you want to go in and see someone off," she says. "A nice little extra you don't have to pay for at all."
Steve Huettel can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3384.