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SRQ Airport CEO: We have more than enough land to expand

Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport CEO Rick Piccolo says available land can support passenger terminal growth without the 31 acres it leases to New College of Florida.

The new long-range plan for Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport shows a new parking deck over the current short-term parking along with a new arrivals road, separating it from the departures traffic.
The new long-range plan for Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport shows a new parking deck over the current short-term parking along with a new arrivals road, separating it from the departures traffic.
Courtesy image
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The wall-to-wall windows that surround Rick Piccolo's office on the third floor of the terminal building provide a bird's-eye view of the airfield activity at Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport.

Sitting at a window-side round meeting table, he points across the tarmac and says, “If we ever need to expand, we can always do it over there.”

“Over there” is the northeastern portion of property owned and managed by the Sarasota-Manatee Airport Authority, of which Piccolo is president and CEO. There, a collection of commercial businesses lease space from the airport.

Southwest of the terminal, the airport owns more than 100 acres with plans for future revenue-producing commercial development along University Parkway, shared rental car preparation and staging area plus additional parking, which will be needed when sometime in the future it goes vertical on the short-term lot with a four-level parking structure. 

There, plans are for the first two levels to house quick-turn car rental service below two levels each with about 500 parking spaces. That construction will include a new arrivals roadway, which will separate arrival and departure passenger traffic. Baggage claim will also be relocated there and the current luggage pick-up space repurposed.

If expanding “over there” ever were to become necessary it would be well beyond 2050 based on SMAA and the more conservative Federal Aviation Administration passenger count projections.

The SMAA forecast projects 4 million boardings will require 29 gates by 2050, four shy of the airport's complete build-out plan of 33 gates. Boardings, or enplanements, are departing passengers, meaning the total passenger count through the airport, under the call letters SRQ, is approximately doubled.

Projections by the FAA are lower. It forecasts growth rates of 1.2% per year from 2026 to 2030 with an aggregated 1.2% growth rate between 2024 and 2040 and also between 2024 and 2050. Both growth rate projections are low compared to SRQ's recent growth and the FAA's national forecast for domestic passenger enplanements.

Boardings forecast for 2024-2050

SMAA Boardings ForecastGrowth Rate
20403,348,0472.7% average 2024-2040
20504,002,7702.2% average 2024-2050
*Calculated from 2023 enplanements

The growth projections aren't merely academic talking points. The data is also relevant to a an ongoing conflict: the attempt by SMAA to sell 31 acres currently leased to New College of Florida, where its East Campus is immediately adjacent to the loop road around the airport’s parking lot. 

Piccolo has appealed the FAA’s rejection of the plan to sell the property to New College for $11.5 million. Former SRQ Director of Facilities John Schussler, who retired in 2017, has actively opposed the sale and as such has lobbied the FAA, insisting the airport will need that land for future expansion when the 99-year, well-below market-rate lease with New College expires in 2056.

More parking 

The airport's master plan at full buildout, Piccolo says, indicates the site occupied by New College is disposable. Parking is not a concern to him as a new 500-space remote lot opened at the corner of University Parkway and Old Bradenton Road late last year, and another lot just north of the terminal is under construction. More as-yet unpaved lots along Rental Car Road are also currently available for overflow vehicles.

In all, 1,100 spaces will have been added by the time the new five-gate ground boarding facility opens late this year, the first of a three-phase project that will eventually bring 15 new gates, a net of 14 gates with the loss of Gate B2 to the construction.

Highlighted in orange is the new ground boarding facility that will bring five new gates to SRQ by the end of 2024. The next phase of Terminal A is in yellow, with four elevated gates.
Courtesy image

Piccolo says there is adequate parking included in the expansion plans, but wonders if even that will be necessary.

“Thirty years from now are people still driving their cars or using some other means of transportation?” Piccolo says. "A quarter of millennials don't even think they need a car, and so how does it affect your parking? When you build a parking structure, today it costs about somewhere between $40,000 and $50,000 per space, so you do a revenue bond and 25 years from now, how many of those people will be parking cars in order to pay off the bond?

"Those are the kinds of things we have to think about when planning for parking.”

The evolution of self-driving vehicles, he adds, that won’t need to park and wait for their owners to return, and the anticipation of vehicle sharing rather than individual ownership will require less parking demand even as the airport grows.

The airport’s current master plan shows $35 million in parking improvements and expansion that will take it to 2040 when, if passenger projections hold true, more will be needed. That is unless alternatives to personal vehicles abate parking requirements.

“If you go vertical you’re virtually unlimited,” Piccolo says.

Sarasota-Manatee International Airport Long Range Gate Plan

Projected BoardingsGates Needed
Based on 140,000 annual boardings per gate

If not parking, the New College land could be used to generate revenue, but not without considerable cost. Between now and 2056, the undervalued lease is anticipated to generate only about $3.5 million. Afterward, the costs to remove any structures there at that time would likely be even higher. 

New College students live in the Dort Residence Hall just a few yards from Airport Road that loops around the parking lot at Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport.
Photo by Andrew Warfield

“It would be 2056 before you'd have it available anyway, so you live with this tremendously undervalued lease for another 31 years. Even if we need it in 31 years when the lease expires, do you think they wouldn't fight us?" Piccolo says, transitioning his thoughts to the New College perspective. "It’s our 100-year anniversary and you want to kick us off because you need to put some parking here? Put your parking someplace else or let's work cooperatively.”

Cooperatively as in build a parking structure along General Spaatz Boulevard large enough to meet both airport and college needs. “There are many ways that this could be done,” he says.

Enough capacity

Between 2017 and 2023, boardings at SRQ, largely fueled by post-pandemic travel beginning in 202, experienced explosive growth, from 593,830 per year to 2.16 million. That's up 263.4%. The SMAA projections anticipate a slower annual growth rate of about 2.7% starting in 2026.

“We had this fantastic growth that was unprecedented, but it wasn't going to continue forever," Piccolo says. "We're projecting probably a 2% increase in passengers next year, because things are starting to bottom out a little bit because of a number of factors.”

Those include aircraft safety issues experienced by both Boeing and Airbus, impacting production and limiting the supply of new aircraft and reducing the number of total seats in the air. 

The five new ground boarding gates have already been leased to Allegiant, which has yet to announce routes and the number of flights per day. Piccolo says he anticipates the new gates to bring 2.2 million more passengers traveling through SRQ.

When, or for that matter if, an extension of the new Concourse A is built to connect with Concourse B, that brings a net gain of three gates, followed by a future expansion of another five ground boarding gates. Depending on travel trends at that time, SRQ's expansion could be done for several years.

Currently, gates at SRQ average about 166,000 passengers each per year. The projected future average is 140,000. The current expansion alone will take SRQ to about 3 million boardings per year, or about 6 million total passengers.

“The FAA forecast says that we will hit just under 3 million enplanements in 2050, so I can make a cogent argument right now that when we finish the Terminal A extension, we will have enough gate capacity to go another 25 years before we would even need to build Phase 2 of this terminal," Piccolo says. "Theoretically, this will be enough without adding Concourse C until 2050.”

This article originally appeared on sister site



Andrew Warfield

Andrew Warfield is the Sarasota Observer city reporter. He is a four-decade veteran of print media. A Florida native, he has spent most of his career in the Carolinas as a writer and editor, nearly a decade as co-founder and editor of a community newspaper in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina.

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