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Tampa International Airport keeps free hour parking in short- and long-term garages

You'll still get a free hour parking to pick up or drop off someone at Tampa International Airport.

The airport's governing board voted unanimously Thursday to keep the popular perk. Airport staff last month recommended eliminating first-hour-free parking in the short- and long-term garages to raise an extra $2.2 million for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.

Few board members embraced ending the policy at the time. John Wheat, TIA's interim executive director, came back Thursday recommending only a small change. Currently, no matter how long drivers stay in the garage, the first hour is free. Under the new policy, it's free only if drivers leave before the hour is up. Otherwise, they'll pay $3 starting Oct. 15.

That will generate $440,000 for next year's budget, Wheat said. The rest of the shortfall will come from postponing three small construction and infrastructure projects until 2012.

More than 1.1 million drivers a year now park less than an hour at the airport and pay nothing, about 40 percent of all airport parking customers.

The discussion then swung to a St. Petersburg Times story Wednesday about how board members are allowed to park at the airport free for any reason.

Dr. Joseph Diaco, who supported ending first-hour-free last month, parked a total of 28 days in the $20-a-day short-term garage on vacations to California and New York from late May through mid-July. The bill for a regular customer: about $560.

Diaco called the story "character assassination'' and "a very distorted, class warfare-type article.'' Board chairman Al Austin apologized to Diaco for the story and said he believes all airports give board members courtesy parking.

Austin parked in the short-term garage for 20 days during three trips unrelated to airport business since summer 2009, records showed. That would cost $400 otherwise.

Tampa Pam Iorio jumped in, saying she was uncomfortable about board members taking time at a meeting to criticize news articles that are "the check and balance in our system.'' Members should use free parking only for board meetings and other airport business, she said.

"I think when you park here on personal business, you ought to pay for it yourself,'' said Iorio.

Board member Steven Burton then complained that Wheat initially wanted to cut out first-hour-free parking for the public while keeping "elective'' projects in the budget. He pointed to a $588,000 makeover of the private pilot terminal at Peter O. Knight Airport, which now will be postponed until 2012.

"I'm concerned about committing to these kinds of projects (while) adversely affecting our customers,'' said Burton, managing partner for the Tampa office of the law firm Broad & Cassel. He suggested the airport cut low-value fix-up projects while passenger traffic at TIA declines.

Iorio shot back that the city is taking advantage of low construction costs to build and rebuild structures and utilities. Airport staff should follow suit and make sure facilities don't deteriorate.

"We've got to keep improving … so when the economy improves our airport will be better,'' she said.

Officials heard one bit of good news: Global Aviation Holdings, the largest provider of charter passenger and cargo aircraft service to the U.S. military, will move its overnight maintenance operation to Tampa International, with about 50 jobs, starting in January.

Steve Huettel can be reached at huettel@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3384.

Tampa International Airport keeps free hour parking in short- and long-term garages 09/02/10 [Last modified: Thursday, September 2, 2010 10:16pm]
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