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Chris Jones

Airport Angst: Overall Parking Demand Up 15 percent

30 August 2004

It's a problem that makes local travelers' heads spin, and chances are it's only going to worsen in the months to come.

Finding an open space within McCarran International Airport's long-term parking garage can be an adventure even on the best of days. Drivers are forced to navigate a series of lane changes before winding their way around an often dizzying spiral driveway that leads to the upper levels of an eight-story parking garage.

And thanks to this year's resurgence in air travel, drivers often can't get that far before "Garage Full" signs divert them to remote parking lots -- and the requisite, time-consuming bus ride back to the terminal.

"We were cussing all the way over here," said Paul Dreschler, who was caught in the Las Vegas airport's parking shuffle recently when he and friend Jay Blood were forced to a remote lot before catching a jet bound for San Diego. "They keep adding gates (to handle more aircraft), but they don't add anywhere for people to park."

Airport leaders are aware of the problem though they say they're hamstrung by a lack of open space and record-setting passenger loads that increased by 15.2 percent through June to 20.3 million. Vehicle traffic has increased by a similar percentage, Harry Waters, McCarran's assistant director of landside operations, said earlier this month.

"Last year it (filled up) on holiday weekends," Waters said. "Now it's like every weekend since April or so."

Through June, approximately 340,000 vehicles had exited airport garages and paid parking lots this year, up 7 percent vs. last year's six-month figure of 317,000 vehicles.

In addition, parked vehicles' average length of stay is also up this year, creating a roughly 15 percent increase in overall parking demand vs. the same period of 2003, said airport spokeswoman Elaine Sanchez.

Last year's 12-month total was approximately 569,000 parked vehicles, Waters said.

McCarran's primary garages, commonly called gold and silver, extend above and to the east of the airport's main terminal. They can hold up to 6,650 vehicles, though 1,550 spaces in the silver lot have been closed to the public for nearly three years because of post-Sept. 11, 2001, security precautions designed to prevent potential car bombs from getting close to congested public areas.

The silver lot is now used entirely for employee parking.

Those restrictions leave just 5,100 spaces available for public use, but 900 are designated for short-term stays of less than three hours, while 700 are reserved for the airport's valet parking service.

With only 3,500 garage spaces available for self-parked, long-term stays, travelers like Dreschler and Blood often end up in the airport's 3,650-space remote lot off Russell Road, particularly if they arrive on a Thursday or Friday afternoon.

"On busy weeks, we've even seen it fill up on Tuesday and Wednesday, but usually it's closer to the weekend," Waters said of the gold garage.

Congestion is at its worst during the morning and late afternoon, periods when the bulk of McCarran's daily outbound passengers depart. The garage often reopens during evening hours, even on weekends, thanks to vacancies brought on by returning locals. Still, closures almost always return with the morning's rush of outbound travelers.

Clark County Aviation Director Randy Walker said there is no viable site to build another garage near McCarran's main terminal. And while a 2,500-space garage is planned for the airport's Terminal 3 expansion, that won't come on line until mid-2009.

"The only real opportunity we have for additional parking is remote satellite service like we do now," Walker said.

Waters suggests people allow more time at the airport before their scheduled departure, or in some cases drive directly to the remote lot.

"I know it's uncovered, but for some people who are going to be gone two or three weeks, they may prefer to save the money," Waters said. "If you're going to try to use the gold garage, especially on a Thursday or Friday, make sure to allow at least 15 minutes in case you have to go back to overflow."

He also said taxis, park-and-ride services or airport shuttles can be used to avoid garage congestion.

"That's something everyone should consider," Waters said. "We have a lot of people who park for three weeks to 30 days in the garage. It would probably be cheaper if they took a cab or had a family member drop them off."

Parking shortages aren't unique to McCarran. The Denver Post reported this month that Denver International Airport could soon spend about $34 million for 5,000 new parking spaces. That airport has about 34,000 public parking spaces, including 8,500 in a remote lot seldom used outside busy holiday travel periods.

On-airport spaces there have often been filled this year as Denver International had a 22 percent increase in passenger traffic from the first half of 2003. Parking is a challenge at almost every U.S. airport, Walker said, adding remote parking is common across the United States.

McCarran ranks as the nation's sixth-busiest airport in passenger volume, but only 8 percent of that activity involves locals -- the primary users of airport parking lots.

"You can't compare us to the other top 10 airports that have a much larger demand for local passengers than we do," Walker said when asked why McCarran has fewer parking spaces than other busy U.S. airports.

"If we were just a normal community that didn't have a huge tourist base, we would be some small airport that did 3 (million) to 5 million passengers a year and would need the same amount of parking as we have today," he added.