Hartsfield-Jackson to open new rental car center

Today’s opening of the consolidated rental car center near Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport means renters will no longer stop at counters in the main terminal or ride shuttles to farflung lots.

Instead, they’ll board an elevated SkyTrain at the terminal for a five-minute trip across I-85 to the new rental center, which houses all 12 companies offering cars.

“This will be another front door to our city,” said airport general manager Ben DeCosta. He joined Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, College Park Mayor Jack Longino and about 300 others who gathered Monday for a ribbon-cutting at the new facility.

The center’s opening caps a 10-year saga involving years of planning, negotiations between city governments, disruption after 9/11, cost increases and delays.

The rental car center and accompanying automated people-mover train was “a complex project and it required a lot of smart collaboration of hundreds, if not thousands of people,” said DeCosta.

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It’s part of the airport’s $6 billion capital improvement program, which also includes the already finished fifth runway and the long-delayed international terminal, now slated to open in 2012.

Construction of the rental car center began in 2006. Negotiations between Atlanta and College Park over land and other elements of the deal caused early delays.

“We’re a little late with the facility but we’re still proud of it,” said Longino, the College Park mayor. “There’s been several years of delays -- but we have to remember the economy played a part in it,” he added, citing travel declines after 9/11.

And when the project was being planned, “concrete prices and steel prices went through the roof,” DeCosta said, causing the cost to increase from $479 million to $642 million.

The rising pricetag led DeCosta to famously “eat his hat” -- a construction helmet-shaped cake, which he ate at a city council committee meeting in 2007 when discussing delays in the project and asking for more funding.

Now, more than two years later, the sleek black SkyTrain cars will start carrying travelers. The train will also make a stop at the Georgia International Convention Center. The convention center expects to attract more meetings with the connection to the airport. A new Gateway Center office building next to the convention center and reachable via the SkyTrain has signed Rolls Royce as a tenant. A SpringHill Suites hotel is scheduled to open at the Gateway Center next week, and a Marriott is under construction nearby.

More than 2 million passengers rent cars at the Atlanta airport annually, and Atlanta is the fourth-largest rental car market in the country. The SkyTrain will also alleviate congestion around the airport by taking dozens of rental car shuttles off the roads, officials say.

The new facility will also allow for growth at the airport. But meanwhile, rental car operations are projected to decline with the slow economy and weak business travel market, contributing to a downturn in revenues and a smaller budget for the airport.

The new rental car center, which was funded with bond financing and $4.50 per person facility charges, will not affect the 3 percent rental car tax collected by College Park.

AT A GLANCE

How travelers will use the rental car center:

* Pick up any checked luggage at baggage claim

* Follow overhead signs and hallway placards to the rental car center

* Proceed out the west end of the terminal to the SkyTrain people-mover train station.

* Take five-minute ride on the SkyTrain to the rental car center

* For rental car return from southbound I-85: Take Airport Boulevard/Camp Creek Parkway exit 72. Travel south on Airport Boulevard. Turn right onto Jet Road. Travel through traffic signal and across rental car center bridge.

Rental car center facts:

Two four-story parking decks have more than 8,700 spaces, with 1,200 additional ground-level spaces

137,000-square-foot customer service center

12 rental car agencies

6 2-car ATL SkyTrains

58 fuel pumps

19 wash bays

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