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City to tax off-site parking companies at O'Hare and Midway

Air travelers and the loved ones who pick them up have been able to cut their costs by parking at off-site garages and riding shuttles to O’Hare and Midway Airport terminals, but those bargains are about to shrink.

On Thursday, the City Council’s Aviation Committee approved a long-stalled ordinance empowering the city to slap parking companies that have set up shop just outside both airports — in some cases outside the city to avoid paying a parking tax that Mayor Rahm Emanuel loves to raise — with a tax of on ten percent of their gross revenues.

The mayor’s ordinance authorizes Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans to “negotiate and execute” five-year agreements with any off-airport parking service provider that uses airport roadways or other airport facilities to pick up, drop off or otherwise serve customers” at either airport. Those companies would be prohibited from using airport roadways and facilities without such an agreement.

Jessica Sampson, general counsel for the city’s Department of Aviation, said the tax would also apply to hotels that offer parking to their guests and shuttle them to O’Hare and Midway.

The “access fee and/or concession fee” was initially pegged at 12 percent, but reduced in negotiations between the companies and the city. That’s why company lobbyists, including former State Rep. Robert Molaro (D-Chicago) representing Wally Park, testified in favor of the tax.

The costs are almost certain to be passed along to consumers in the form of higher rates.

And that’s what bothers Ald. Ray Lopez (15th).

“When I see people coming the the airport, they are watching every dime,” Lopez said. “For everyday families struggling to take their children on a trip, another ten percent could be the difference between going on a trip or not.”

Aviation Committee Chairman Mike Zalewski (23rd) countered that it’s about time that the free ride end for companies like Inter-Park and Wally Park now offering bargain parking rates — in some cases, one-third of what you’d pay at O’Hare’s main parking garage — and clogging airport roadways with their shuttle vans and buses.

“It’s like $30-a-day at the main garage. These off-site garages are like $10-a-day. The shuttle is free. It’s a lot cheaper, but you have to hop on a bus,” Zalewski said.

“There is a cost to maintaining airport roadways. You have to either fix them, repave them, clean them or remove the snow. To offset some of those costs, all airports have been charging these lots a percentage of gross revenues. O’Hare and Midway have never charged. We’re just catching up.”

Sampson said an analysis conducted by the city in conjunction with World Business Chicago showed that, of the top fifteen airports nationwide, O’Hare is second in outbound enplanements, but only tenth in ground transportation revenue. Based on 2014 revenues, the ten percent tax is expected to generate $2.7 million-a-year. That’s 10 percent of the city’s $20.7 million annual spending on airport roadway maintenance.

“We’re the only airport system that does not have that capability. That’s something we believe we need to capture,” Sampson said.

For air travelers and their loved ones who chose to pay more for the convenience of parking on the grounds of O’Hare and Midway, Emanuel’s ordinance also authorizes Evans to establish an incentive-laden program to reward “frequent parkers.”

Premium services to be offered include a reservation system that would eliminate the need to aimlessly drive from floor-to-floor at O’Hare in search of a space you can’t find–provided you’re willing pay for the privilege.

Car washing, detailing and “light maintenance services” is also expected to be offered to business travelers and other frequent fliers.

The precise number of parking spaces that would be made available for reservation was not immediately known, nor was the reservation fee. O’Hare already offers valet parking for a much higher price. Sampson said reservations would be made either online or “potentially through a phone app.”

“This program is something we’re excited about. Not only does it encourage people to park at the airport. It generates additional tax revenue for the city,” she said.

Zalewski said the reservation and car repair services are not for everyone. But, there is definitely a market for it.

“A lot of business travelers will take advantage of that for the sheer convenience,” he said.

“Leisure travelers going on vacation tend to get to the airport two hours in advance. They relax. They get a bite to eat. But the business traveler tends to cut it close, time-wise. They run on a tight schedule. They would definitely take advantage of something where the parking space is more of a guarantee.”