Fighting congestion, pollution, fatigue at crowded airports

Been stuck in traffic at your local airport lately? As you were wasting time crawling along sucking exhaust fumes, did you notice how you were surrounded by an armada of buses, taxis and vans, many of them half empty or, worse, had only a driver?

If part of your travel experience included renting a car at an airport, you also had to endure a lengthy shuttle ride to the rental office. Then, on your return, in addition to the mandatory early check-in for your flight home, be sure to budget even more time to rush to a shuttle for that anxious ride back to the terminal—provided you can remember the location of your off-site, car-rental office.

About now is when you may want to scream.

Last year, 165 million people flowed through California airports, along with thousands of tons of cargo.  Our airports are part of our lifestyle, and serve a critical role in our local, state and national economies. They help create hundreds of thousands of jobs and are responsible for billions in economic activity. 

But our airports are also a primary source of traffic congestion and air pollution. Adding to these problems, airports are located in some of our most crowded urban areas. 

To address these issues, airports throughout the country have been consolidating rental-car outlets into central locations, replacing scattered rental-car lots and buildings. This also makes it easier for consumers to comparison shop.  The result: A major and immediate cut in the number of vans and buses clogging our already busy streets around our already busy airports.

To build centralized rental-car outlets, airports rely on customer fees on each rental contract. But the difference between California and the rest of the nation is our airports are not allowed to set these fees. Most of the nation’s other airports have fee-setting authority reflecting local market conditions and debt-service needs. Not California. Our airports are locked into a one-size-fits-all rate structure of $10 per rental contract. This means an airport as large as LAX charges the same $10 fee as Fresno-Yosemite International Airport.

For many state airports, the $10 fee simply is not enough to construct what’s needed to address growing traffic challenges and reduce air pollution, according to records cited by senior airport officials.

My measure, Senate Bill 1192, sponsored by the City of Los Angeles, would provide airports an alternative. Airports happy with the existing structure can leave it in place. If, however, this fee is deemed inadequate, the local airport authority can change it if they hold public reviews and hearings to increase the fee, initially to a maximum $6 per day for up to five days. All money must be earmarked for construction of the rental-car complex and a transportation link to the airport terminals. Mandatory independent audits ensure the fee is based on cost of project design, construction and operation.

I fly almost every week. I understand the sticker shock many travelers face, from airline baggage fees to, yes, special assessments on rental-car bills.  With SB 1192, the cost of centralizing rental-car offices is clearly labeled and the consumer would know where the money is going. They also would be the biggest beneficiaries.

Obviously, passage of SB 1192 would mean some rental-care customers would pay more to rent a car. But the cost of doing nothing is even greater.  California’s airports face twin challenges. The first is competing for business with airports in other states—including those that have newer, more convenient terminals and services.

The other is reducing the substantial impact airports have on our environment. Consolidated offices would improve the rental-car experience—and slash the number of rental car shuttles contributing to congestion, greenhouse-gas emissions and dirty air.

City officials estimate such a project at LAX would create 4,000 jobs for a decade while cutting annual vehicle trips into the airport by nearly 400,000. There is no opposition to this bill.

 I repeat, there is no opposition.

Supporters include the California Chamber of Commerce, the Alliance for a Regional Solution to Airport Congestion; Bob Hope Airport; the California Airports Council; the Fresno-Yosemite International Airport; the Inglewood-Airport Area Chamber of Commerce; and San Francisco International Airport.

Perhaps Michael Leonard, senior governmental affairs representative for Los Angeles World Airports, said it best when he testified to the Assembly Judiciary Committee on June 29.

“SB 1192 is an environmental bill, it’s a jobs bill and it’s an essential bill if California airports are to remain the economic gateways to the rest of the nation and the world,” Leonard said. 

The measure passed, and faces a final Assembly Floor vote in early August. If approved, it would then go to the governor.

The promise of centralized rental-car offices, with their benefits for reduced traffic and air pollution, can only be realized if California airports have an appropriate and flexible way to finance these improvements.  This is why passage of SB 1192 is crucial for the state’s gateways to our Golden State.

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