$147M airport upgrades may be on runway

Charleston County Aviation Authority officials are considering a long-range plan for future expansion of the terminal building and parking deck at Charleston International Airport. The terminal is undergoing a $189 million renovation and expansion that will be completed in November.

Not yet finished with a $189 million makeover, Charleston International Airport officials looked Monday at another $147 million in building needs over the next five years.

Included in those plans are a canopy across the front of the terminal to keep passengers near the parking deck out of the rain, an expanded ticket hall for additional airlines, an air-cargo ramp near the air-traffic control tower, a second parking deck and, the biggest expense of all, a third wing to handle the airport’s rapid growth.

Where the money will come from to pay for the investments hasn’t been decided, but airport officials say the structures are necessary to keep up with the Lowcountry’s development.

Charleston International handled about 200,000 more passengers each year from 2010 to 2014, setting a record last year at 3.1 million travelers flying in and out of the state’s busiest airport.

“The airport has been a success story,” Charleston County Aviation Authority board member Walter Hundley said. “What are we going to do to manage that success? We have to talk about growth, how to handle it and how to handle finances for the growth. This is not something that we can continue to put off.”

The airport has been growing so fast, it has surpassed benchmarks set in a 20-year master plan developed in 2011 under a Federal Aviation Administration requirement.

“We are at 76 percent of the master plan that was supposed to take us to 2030,” said Sean Tracey, director of special projects at the Aviation Authority. “It’s a good problem to have.”

Among the most pressing needs is more parking. During Thanksgiving, the busiest travel time of the year, the airport ran out of parking space and people were parking on the sides of roads.

“During the past seven months, 42 percent of the time we have had 80 percent capacity (in parking),” Tracey said.

A new parking deck is expected to cost about $47.5 million and should be in the works by 2020, he said. It would be built behind the current 1,200-space parking deck, completed just 10 years ago.

Tracey said it’s imperative that the new garage be built for future expansion on top of it. The current structure was not designed for vertical expansion, he said.

When the deck was designed, it also was limited in height so it would not obstruct the view of the terminal for passengers arriving by car, airport finance director Judi Olmstead said.

Officials also are considering moving rental cars into the parking deck to free up space for a third wing on the terminal building.

The projected $80 million structure would sit to the left of the new rental car pavilion and house six new gates. It’s not expected to materialize until sometime after 2020, Tracey said.

With the addition of two more carriers — Porter Airlines and Silver Airways — over the next five weeks, the airport has little room for more ticket counters. Airport officials are proposing a $5.3 million addition to the right side of the terminal near the employee parking area for an expanded airline ticket hall. It could be completed within five years.

Officials also are looking to build a centrally located air cargo facility off South Aviation Avenue near the airport control tower, but they need first to construct a parking ramp for airplanes. That’s expected to cost close to $14 million. It also could be finished within five years.

The last item, a canopy in front of the main passenger terminal, will cost about $1.4 million. Board member Margaret Seidler has been leading the drive for the rain shield, saying if Charleston wants to be a first-class airport, it should build the canopy.

How the projects will be paid for is up in the air, but borrowing by issuing bonds will be considered, airports director Paul Campbell said.

“Do we have enough revenue with adequate bonds?” he said. “That may dictate what we can and cannot do. We can only do what we can afford.”

Reach Warren L. Wise at 937-5524 or twitter.com/warrenlancewise.