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Parking War Driving Fee Cuts at Burbank Airport

May 05, 2003|Caitlin Liu | Times Staff Writer

An all-out war has erupted at Burbank Airport -- over parking.

On one side is Star Park, a new lot trying to elbow in on the airfield's lucrative parking business.

On the other is the Burbank-Glendale-Pasadena Airport Authority, which is bleeding itself dry after slashing prices to defend its turf.

As the two camps throw legal punches in court, passengers are emerging as the victors, with more parking choices at sometimes about half the previous prices.

"It's awesome! As a consumer, it benefits my wallet," grinned Yaphet N. Peterson, a Santa Clarita college administrator, just before boarding an airport parking shuttle to his car.

Before the new lot opened in January, the airport authority enjoyed a near-monopoly over parking. Its facilities are by far the largest, with 4,500 hourly and long-term spaces, while two smaller operators -- Carter's VSP and Ace -- offer several hundred each.

"It was a stable market. It was the good old days back then, before the drastic competition," said Elias Constantinides, a former airport employee who is now general manager of Ace Parking at the Hilton across the street.

Soon after Star Park's owner introduced plans for more than 2,000 spaces within walking distance of the terminal, the battle began.

Weeks before Star even opened, the airport fired the first salvo by cutting long-term parking fees from $9 to $4.55 a day -- a price that now ranks among the lowest at airports nationwide, according to a 2001 survey by Airports Council International-North America.

Burbank had reason to fear competition. Like other smaller airports without many fee-generating restaurants and shops, it relies heavily on parking as a revenue source. Until recently, parking fees raised about $16 million a year, nearly half the airport's operating revenues. But because of the price war, the airport expects to earn only $11.5 million from parking this year and $10 million next year.

The airport's draft budget for fiscal year 2004 predicts a $4.5-million deficit, due in large part to depressed parking profits, said authority spokesman Victor J. Gill.

Others are also getting bruised. Carter's VSP Parking across Hollywood Way has cut its tax-included $13 rate to $10. Ace, which charges $8.90 a day, now offers a third-day-free special.

Still, the lots have fewer customers than before and their revenues are down by 30% to 40%, their managers said, even though airport passenger traffic has increased slightly in the last year.

On a recent morning at Star Park, which reduced its initial daily fee from $10.91 to $7, manager John Rodriguez winced at the vast expanse of vacant asphalt on his lot. The airport has been playing hardball to drive away business, he said.

Earlier this year, the airport removed a crosswalk customers had used as a shortcut from his lot to the terminal and posted signs prohibiting pedestrians from crossing Airport Access Road, a private road owned by the authority. Now, Star shuttles its customers in a nearly mile-long loop, around fences and other streets, to the terminal.

A few weeks ago, airport police began issuing $90 citations to pedestrians crossing between Star's lot and the terminal.

"It's ridiculous," said Farid Mahoorgilani, a ramp agent for Southwest Airlines, fuming over his recent ticket. He pointed to where the crosswalk used to be. "There's a stop sign right there. It should be legal to cross."

The authority removed the crosswalk in March to improve safety and reduce its liability in case of accidents, Gill said, not for business reasons.

At a public hearing before the crosswalk was removed, an airport traffic consultant testified that pedestrians are at greater risk of accidents in a marked crosswalk than without one because the visible lines can lull them into a false sense of security. Airport officials say the new lot could increase foot traffic by 1,000%.

In a lawsuit filed last year, the authority asked a court to bar Star's owner, Los Angeles-based developer Zelman A-1, from using the crosswalk and trespassing on airport property. The airport also erected hundreds of feet of fencing that blocked vehicle access to the road.

In a countersuit, Zelman accused the airport of violating public access rights and maliciously interfering with its business after earlier negotiations for a revenue-sharing arrangement broke down.

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Robert Hess issued a preliminary ruling Jan. 22 granting Zelman vehicular access and forcing the airport to remove the fence, but denied the developer any right to maintain the crosswalk.

At one point, the exasperated judge told the rivals that their legal wrangling is really "a power struggle ... a struggle over money, and it's a struggle over who has the upper hand in negotiating your way out of this broiling that you're in."

A final ruling is pending.

The airport has no plans to back down. "All the authority is trying to do is protect its customer base," Gill said.

Zelman officials said they are prepared for an expensive trial, which has yet to be scheduled.

"We've invested $40 million in this site," Vice President Brett Foy said. "We're not going away."

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