Construction on a multi-year project to improve Gainesville Regional Airport continues to make progress.
Allan Penksa, CEO of the airport, said the plan includes a parking lot expansion of more than 150 parking spaces and many airport terminal improvements.
Construction on the south phase of the airport’s parking expansion began in August, Penksa said, and includes paving 69 new long-term parking spots in a grassy area once used as a temporary solution for overflow parking.
Penksa said that temporary solution turned into an every-week problem as cars constantly overflowed into the grass area.
Penksa said since 2003, yearly passenger numbers have grown from roughly 125,000 to about 220,000.
“That just couldn’t work, he said. “People have wheelie bags, and they’re dressed in business attire and high heels.”
The new parking spots are expected to be completed in January, which is when the north phase of the parking expansion will begin, airport spokeswoman Suzanne Schiemann wrote in an email.
The parking expansion’s north phase includes adding 90 spaces, Penksa said.
The Gainesville-Alachua County Regional Airport Authority board will decide whether to use them as short-term or long-term parking spaces or a mix, Schiemann said.
Penksa said because the number of passengers who use the airport continues to rise, the new parking spaces “may not even be enough” after they’re built. Existing parking lots may need to be “rehabilitated” at some point as well, he added.
Improvements in the works for the airport’s terminal include two new boarding gate areas, an outdoor service-animal relief area, a private lactation room, renovated restrooms, wired seating areas with charging ports and a food concession area.
Schiemann said airport officials expect the bidding process on the terminal expansion in June 2018 with construction beginning in fall 2018.
Based on the current projected funding, she said the terminal expansion and improvements to the existing terminal are expected to be completed by 2021.
Planned improvements are designed to keep up with growing needs of the airport’s passengers, Penksa said.
“It’s commonplace now that people need service animals, and those animals need a place to relieve themselves past security,” Penksa said. “We need to respond to the need.”
He added: “There’s been a lot of changes into when and how mothers provide for their babies. Things that you didn’t have in airports 10 years ago are expected and needed. Having the private lactation room is something mothers definitely need and will appreciate.”
Although the improvements are scheduled and being designed, Penksa said airport officials must decide which improvements happen first as funding becomes available.
And with a constantly changing air industry, he said it’s difficult to “pull the trigger” on any specific improvement.
Before the parking expansion was approved, airport officials were hesitant to add more parking, fearing it would become obsolete as transportation companies like Uber and Lyft continue to grow.
“There isn’t a crystal ball that tells us what the industry will look like in 20 years,” he said. “But we do know the demand for air service is there. This isn’t a ‘build-it-and-they-will-come.’”