TIA garage seems just steps away

The 3,300 new spaces will help alleviate the airport's parking crunch. Phase 2 of the garage will add 2,300 more.

Published November 9, 2005

TAMPA - Most city blocks are longer.

Parking in the farthest corner of Tampa International Airport's new six-story remote economy garage and walking to the elevator requires 77 average paces. Less than 2 minutes. The wait for an elevator and the ride to ground level isn't worth mentioning.

On Tuesday morning, when the $71-million garage opened for business, shuttle buses were lined up waiting for passengers. The shuttles look identical to those used by rental car companies, with seats for about 15 people, plenty of room for others to stand and easy access to luggage racks.

The drivers eagerly helped people with bags.

The time it takes to ride to the landside terminal from the garage at the south end of the airport property depends on how many times the bus stops for different airlines. On one trip Tuesday morning, the shuttle stopped at Delta, JetBlue and Southwest and finished the trip in 13 minutes.

The garage is TIA's answer to its ongoing parking crunch, a solution that "will satisfy our needs for a short time," said Stephen Mitchell, chairman of the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority.

The garage pumps 3,300 new spaces into TIA's parking inventory with 2,300 more coming in the summer when Phase 2 of the garage is completed.

The facility and its operation got good reviews from the first wave of customers Tuesday morning.

"It's good, really good," said Charlie Pappas of Boston, a winter resident of Venice, who used to park in an open surface lot. "This is a lot more like a big-time operation."

Charlie Robbins, a photographer from Lehigh Acres near Fort Myers, agreed.

"It's another good touch on what this airport offers," said Robbins. "Even factoring in a tank of gas and the parking charge, it was cheaper for us to fly out of here than from the Fort Myers airport, and it's only 15 minutes from our house."

Not that there weren't glitches.

A signboard that displays how many spaces are available on each of the six levels wasn't operating.

"The guys worked until 11 last night to get it running, and then they just fried something," said Jim Jones, project engineer on the garage.

The whimsical terrazzo floor in the climate-controlled elevator lobby on the ground floor wasn't clean and polished, but workers had removed the protective plastic covering only hours before. The floor depicts tire tracks intersecting with wild abandon, as if vehicles gone out of control had crisscrossed the area.

At the entrance to the garage, motorists can take a ticket or swipe a credit card, but it wasn't clear how the credit card option worked.

And exits from the garage are not well marked. One motorist pleaded for directions from a worker after circling outside the garage for 10 minutes and encountering exit signs that frequently pointed in different directions.

John Wheat, deputy executive director of TIA, also confessed that early-morning crowds in the new facility were greater than expected, creating longer waits for shuttles to the main terminal. Officials don't want the waits to exceed seven minutes.

"We were getting backed up, so we added buses," Wheat said. "We'll ramp it up for the holidays, too. If you have buses, you can always count on a breakdown, so we will have extras in reserve."

Shuttle driver Tim McDonnell of Largo was eager to tell passengers how terrific the new system is compared to the old remote parking lot, even though he had to report to work at 4 a.m.

"In the past, we only picked up passengers at two locations in the main terminal, and if you picked the wrong location, you had a long walk back," he said. "Now we go to all four places that say "Ground Transportation.' No matter which one you pick, we'll be there."

McDonnell was in constant contact with a dispatcher, whose job it was to keep the shuttles spaced to minimize passenger wait times. The buses will operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The new garage is considerably cheaper than the next choice, the close-in, long-term garage. The remote facility charges $7 a day, with the second day free to attract business travelers. The weekly maximum is $42. The long-term garage went to $18 Tuesday morning, for a weekly total of $126.