Orlando International Airport officials are backing away from efforts to build a new southern terminal, but they still want a $470 million monorail and parking garage for a train depot — despite opposition from the major airlines.
Airport Chairman Frank Kruppenbacher said the train station is too important to the region’s economy to be delayed. The monorail and parking garage would link to the depot paid for by the All Aboard Florida system from South Florida, with service planned to start in late 2015.
“If somebody can show me it’s a mistake, I’m always willing to listen to it. But so far I’ve not heard anything other than economic opportunity associated with that [train station] and an improvement of our airport operations,” Kruppenbacher said in an interview with the Orlando Sentinel.
The airlines, however, remain adamant that neither the new terminal nor the parking garage and tram are needed. They consider them the same project because many of the improvements would end up serving each facility. The price tag for both is $2.1 billion.
“Stop all of this,” said Randy Gillespie, director of airport affairs at Southwest Airlines, the largest carrier at Orlando International.
Gillespie, who also heads a committee that represents the biggest airlines at Orlando International, said he believes construction of the train depot will set the stage for the southern terminal, making the building of both projects inevitable. He said the airlines don’t consider the train a competitor for passengers.
The airport should not consider expanding during an uneven economy and time of consolidation among the airlines, he added.
Airport executive director Phil Brown has offered to pause planning for the terminal for a year and develop a set of passenger count triggers that would determine if or when construction would occur.
But Gillespie refused that notion, saying, “What if you never meet those triggers? … But you’ve already built a tram to a garage, that’s also not needed.”
Brown and Kruppenbacher had been pushing a new terminal with 16 gates. It’s needed, they say, because so many extra passengers are headed to Orlando in the future that they eventually will overwhelm restrooms, curb space for cars and buses, baggage handling, and the space set aside for international visitors to get through customs.
That would ruin the “Orlando experience” of a bright, airy and smoothly functioning terminal so important to tourists, they argue.
But a computer analysis by the Orlando Sentinel found that only 94 of the 106 gates at the existing terminal handled passengers in 2012. And that gate use varied widely, with some of them busy morning, noon and night, while others averaged fewer than a single daily departure.
Brown maintains gates are not the issue. Rearranging their use to make them more efficient or even remodeling them would not expand the capacity of the existing terminal, he said.
He rejected renovating little-used Airside 4 into an international hub because, he said, “Ultimately, what you are going to do is spend a lot of money to get incremental space.”
Brown said the current terminal could be filled with long lines of frustrated visitors once the airport hits an annual count of 45 million passengers. That could be reached anytime from 2017 to 2022, according to airport projections.
Construction of a new southern terminal would take four to five years.
Last year, the passenger count actually fell slightly to about 35.3 million travelers, from 35.5 million in 2011. The record of almost 36.5 million was set in 2007, just before the Great Recession hit. The passenger count then fell for two years, to almost 33.7 million in 2009, before beginning a gradual rise that stalled last year.
Gillespie puts little stock in growth projections, saying, “The crystal ball is not all that clear with the future of the airport.”
The airport board, which meets this afternoon, could discuss the construction plans, as well as a proposal by Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs concerning a $2.50 daily tax levied on every car rented at Orlando International.
The fee, which generates about $23 million annually, was created in 2008 and has been used to pay for $102.6 million worth of rental-car upgrades at the airport. That work should be paid off in 2017.
Jacobs had said she would like to divert that surcharge to help pay for mass-transit needs in Central Florida, such as the planned SunRail commuter and the Lynx regional bus system.
But Kruppenbacher and Brown said the charge is needed for the train depot work.
Now Jacobs is saying the airport should be able to keep the rental car fees generated on property, but any surcharges placed elsewhere in Orange, Seminole and Osceola counties should go to mass transit.
That cannot happen, however, unless the Legislature approves extending the tax to all car rental operations in the tri-county area. Such a tax could generate $47 million a year, according to Orange County calculations.
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