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April 19, 2012

The biggest building you may never use

  • Although the 2.1 million-square-foot Consolidated Rental Car Facility is geared toward out-of-town visitors, locals will benefit from reduced traffic, expanded airport parking and less air pollution.
    Port of Seattle


    One of the largest and most visible new facilities at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport opens next month, but despite its size and major customer service role at the airport, it may be one of the most invisible projects to the public.

    This isn’t because no one notices the 2.1 million-square-foot building on 23 acres next to the Airport Expressway. The reason is that most local residents probably won’t use the Consolidated Rental Car Facility (RCF). The users will be out-of-town visitors coming to rent cars. The local benefit of this new facility, however, will be significant.

    When it opens, Sea-Tac Airport’s RCF will be the careful execution of a long-term plan. Back in 1998, the architectural team chose a sophisticated and understated design, with big windows and natural lighting, a ceiling curved like an aircraft wing to reflect the airport’s mission of flight, space for a dozen rental car companies under one roof, and sustainable building features worthy of national recognition. The result is a new amenity both highly functional and visually stunning — a place for business, customers and jobs.

    Photo courtesy of the Port of Seattle [enlarge]
    Construction of the RCF created about 3,900 family-wage jobs.

    The five-story structure will support all airport-related rental car operations at one convenient location, and is designed to meet the current and future demands of the traveling public. It will greatly improve the size, space, and efficiency of rental car operations that are currently spread out at the main terminal garage and multiple off-site locations.

    This important project brought more than 3,900 family wage jobs to the area during construction, and generated more than $24 million in local sales tax. In addition, the sustainable elements of the structure’s design recently garnered a LEED silver certification.

    Why do we need it?

    Sea-Tac Airport’s growth reached record numbers in 2011, surging to more than 32.8 million passengers. That’s a 4 percent increase from the previous year, and our region is expected to continue to grow and attract more visitors. By 2025, annual traffic is expected to be as many as 45 million passengers. As part of the Port of Seattle’s Century Agenda, this project will prepare for the goal to double the number of international flights and destinations as well as meet environmental benchmarks.

    The airport parking garage was never intended to house rental car operations for the long-term. The first two floors of the garage do not offer sufficient capacity for rental car companies. A number of operators had to be located off-site, and their customers transported by many shuttles that added to traffic congestion on the drives and air emission levels.

    The RCF also will improve the efficiency of the rental car quick turnaround areas, where workers clean, wash and return cars to rentable condition. The space dedicated to quick turnaround activities in the airport garage is small for the companies that operate there, and it cannot include all operators. Due to space constraints, operators on-site have to shuttle vehicles between numerous off-site vehicle storage locations and the garage as demand levels fluctuate throughout the day, increasing costs and taking valuable time. Some companies have been doing all their processing off-site.

    How does it work?

    Photo by Soundview Aerial Photography [enlarge]
    The facility takes up 23 acres next to Sea-Tac Airport.

    The RCF will bring 12 rental car companies together in one consolidated location. Compressed natural gas buses will transport customers in five minutes from the terminal to a bus plaza on the top floor of the new facility. There, a 50,000-square-foot customer service center will welcome travelers to a single, convenient location for the service counters of every rental car company.

    The lower four floors (about 400,000 square feet each) will be dedicated to rental car operations. Quick turnaround areas will be on each floor with car washes, vacuums and filling stations. These areas are designed to reclaim, filter and reuse 85 percent of the wash water. Overall, the facility will process up to 14,000 rental cars on a peak day.

    Customers will reach their rental cars on the lower floors by escalators, some that extend two rather than one floor for quicker access. From there, a new on-ramp to the airport expressway will take them directly to Highway 518 or to International Boulevard.

    On the return trip, travelers will get to the new facility via an expanded bridge over Highway 518. A new lane was added to increase the capacity of the bridge and keep traffic moving smoothly.

    Once travelers drop off their vehicles, they will return to the top-floor bus plaza — which will be equipped with flight information displays and flight check-in kiosks — to catch a bus back to the terminal.

    Additional projects

    The $419 million capital program included the cost of the RCF itself as well as related projects. The port built a bus maintenance facility on the south end of the airport to service the shuttle fleet and the current employee bus fleet. Improvements at the terminal included cutouts for bus pickup/drop-off locations on both ends of the terminal drives, just outside baggage claim.

    Other costs included related roadway improvements and the purchase of buses. As with most rental car facilities at other airports, the cost of Sea-Tac’s new facility will be paid by the traveling public through a fee added to each car rental transaction.

    Customer service

    The move to the new facility will eliminate the rental car counters in the baggage claim area, and provide a simplified experience for all customers rather than a variety of options based on individual rental car company procedures.

    Improved customer service was the goal of the project from the beginning. Even airport neighbors who don’t use the facility will notice a reduction in traffic on the airport drives as rental cars will no longer share the same roads with vehicles dropping off or picking up travelers. The shuttle bus service is expected to reduce congestion on local city streets, and the added access from the freeway will speed up the vehicle return time for rental car customers.

    From the business perspective, the new facility puts smaller rental car operators on a more level playing field with larger companies, so that customers will have a greater variety of options and possibly lower rental fees.

    So, the next time you see that large building to the east when you head into the airport, hopefully you’ll think of the benefit it creates for you and the community, even though you might never use it.

    Mark Reis is managing director of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

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