Charlotte Douglas airport’s hourly parking deck to open by Thanksgiving

Charlotte Douglas International Airport officials are scrambling to put the finishing touches on a new $120 million hourly parking deck so it can open before Thanksgiving, relieving congestion that has plagued the airport during construction.

The seven-story parking deck has been under construction for more than a year. At 3.2 million square feet, the 7,000-space facility is twice the size of SouthPark mall.

“This really is the first step in transforming the front door of the airport,” said interim Aviation Director Brent Cagle, in an interview Thursday at his office in the CLT Center on Wilkinson Boulevard.

When the new deck opens, 4,000 public parking spaces will be added to Charlotte Douglas. The deck, which also will feature 3,000 spaces for rental cars, will be free for the first hour, so people can pick up or drop off passengers more easily. After that, it will be $1 an hour, with a $20 daily maximum.

Airport officials hope that will cut down on the number of people circling while waiting for passengers or using the two cellphone waiting lots, which have become increasingly crowded as demand outpaces the small number of spots available.

The opening of the new deck won’t end the airport’s construction-related disruptions. Next spring and summer, Charlotte Douglas plans to start tearing down the elevated road in front of the terminal. The plan is to expand it from three lanes to eight. The airport will also expand the terminal lobby – and one day hopes to move the Queen Charlotte statue there from its perch between the daily parking decks.

The road project and terminal expansion are expected to cost almost $160 million and last more than four years.

The new parking deck will also open the land north of Concourse A to development. Charlotte Douglas plans to build a domestic terminal there.

But first, the airport needs to get the hourly deck open on schedule.

“We’re still painting lines on the pavement,” Deputy Aviation Director Jack Christine said. “Everybody’s on a full court press to get this open.”

The airport’s contractors also need to finish installing the elevators and building staircases, and the parking deck must receive inspections and obtain a certificate of occupancy.

Although airport officials didn’t give an exact date, Christine said he hopes the deck can open in the next two weeks. Cagle echoed him, saying the airport is committed to opening the deck before Thanksgiving, typically the busiest week of the year at Charlotte Douglas.

The airport tore down the old 2,700-space hourly parking decks in front of the terminal last year. Because of that and other construction projects, Charlotte Douglas has had close to 22,000 parking spaces for the past year, down from 26,000. That’s led to more congestion and frustration for drivers, especially those picking up or dropping off passengers who were used to parking in the hourly decks and walking to the terminal.

“We know it’s been disruptive to passengers,” Cagle said. He added that the lack of hourly parking has made roadways more crowded as more drivers circle. “The big impact for us has been what we think it’s done to the roadways.”

Travelers will also be able to walk from the hourly and daily decks to the terminal once again, instead of taking shuttles.

The new hourly deck’s lower floors, with 3,000 parking spaces, will house rental cars, along with fueling facilities. The cars will move from lots just north of Concourse A by the end of February or early March. For the first time, travelers will be able to walk from the terminal to the rental car companies, picking up and dropping off cars without taking a shuttle.

Christine emphasized travelers should still expect to see construction inside and outside the terminal. In addition to the mega-projects, such as the terminal lobby expansion, the airport is also planning many smaller projects, such as a $32 million renovation and rehabilitation of the concourses.

“This is a key milestone,” Christine said. “It’s a big step in the right direction, but it’s just a step.”