Looking Into Airport Parking Privatization in Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT) has a problem. It put close to $500 million into building a new midfield terminal in the 1990s, mostly to serve US Airways, which maintained a large hub there. But after the 9/11 attacks, the airline downsized that hub, and dropped it as a hub altogether by 2004. That has reduced PIT’s enplanements from a peak of 20.7 million in 1997 to just 8.7 million in 2008. But with most of the bonded indebtedness still to pay off, PIT’s airline cost per enplanement last year was $15.80 (compared with only $5.98 in 2000). That makes it one of the most expensive U.S. airports for airlines to serve.

To get PIT out of this trap, Allegheny County executive Dan Onorato is proposing a long-term lease of the airport’s parking facilities to a private operator—13,200 spaces between garages and lots. His aim is to raise $500 million or more, all of it up-front (as in the City of Chicago’s recent leases of parking garages and parking meters). That would enable the Airport Authority to retire its entire $499 million worth of bonds. Debt service on those bonds is running $62 million per year, compared with about $22 million in annual parking revenue. Thus, the Airport Authority would for many years be saving a lot more in debt service expense than it would be losing in parking revenue.

Whether this would be a genuinely good deal depends on several factors. First is how much the lease would actually generate. An article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette quotes Merrill Stabile, president of parking operator Grant Oliver Corp., as saying that investment groups have recently paid 15 to 20 times earnings for parking facilities; he estimated parking at PIT could be worth $440 million. Two factors that would influence that value are (1) the length of the lease, and (2) what controls on parking rate increases would be included in the deal. From the airport’s standpoint, a lease term significantly longer than the term of its existing bonds might not be such a good deal.

Globally, there are well-established procedures for assessing the value of long-term privatization deals. Australia, Britain, and Canada all use a process called the Public Sector Comparator (PSC) to compare, quantitatively, the best-case public-sector model with potential private-sector deals. Chicago’s recent 75-year lease of its parking meter system for $1.2 billion was criticized in a report released this month by the city’s Inspector General Office for not having been analyzed via such a procedure. But the IGO report’s alternative calculation (which suggested that the city could have done better) failed to take into account the value of risk transfer to the private operator. In the case of parking facilities, the longer the lease term the greater the risk assumed by the lessee (e.g. that people will still be using cars and needing to park them in 50 or 75 years). And in the case of PIT, there is an obvious trade-off to be made in terms of making th e airport more attractive to airlines by getting its cost per enplanement way down versus giving up parking revenue for N years.

It’s also interesting to note that at the same time that Allegheny County is trying to lease its airport parking, the City of Los Angeles’s airport department is seeking to buy a 21-acre private parking operation directly east of LAX’s Terminal 1. The Park One property is for sale by AMB Properties Corp., and a Los Angeles Times story quotes one realtor as estimating the price could be in excess of $100 million. The facility has 2,720 spaces and is reportedly highly profitable.