Sea-Tac's New Rental Car Facility is Fast Off the Line

Jennifer Bradley
Published in: 

Just 10 weeks after its mid-May premiere, the new Consolidated Rental Car Facility at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA) served its one millionth customer. During peak periods, more than 1,500 passengers shuttle between the new five-story facility and SEA's terminal per hour. On its busiest day, the facility served 18,000 customers.

Previously, rental car operations occupied fully one-quarter of the airport's public parking garage. Reclaiming that space was "a need that became more acute over time," explains SEA Managing Director Mark Reis. Eventually, that need inspired an eight-year project that created 5,900 jobs. With the new 2.1 million-square-foot rental car facility complete, the airport was able to grow its parking area and better meet the needs of passengers and visitors, notes Reis.

Cost of the $419.3 million facility will be offset almost entirely by customer facility charges of $6 per rental transaction day. The 30-year lease with the rental car companies matches the length of time needed to pay off the bonds used to finance the project. The overall project came in some $20 million under budget.

The new facility brings 12 car rental brands under the same roof, from various previous locations. Lorraine Tallarico, director of properties for Avis and Budget, reports that the facility provides operational efficiency, customer service ease and space for future growth - just what the rental car companies wanted. As the chairperson who represented all seven of SEA's rental car companies during the project, Tallarico met with project heads every month for more than 10 years. Throughout the process, the Port of Seattle commissioners were "very good partners," she recalls.


Project: Consolidated Rental Car Facility

Location: Seattle-Tacoma Int'l Airport

Cost: $419.3 million total

Size: 2.1 million sq. ft.; 5 floors; 23 acres

Capacity: 5,400 vehicles

Car Washes: 22

Gas Pumps: 48

Tenants: 7 rental car companies, with 12 total brands

Project Timeline: June 2004 - May 2012

Architects: Callison/Demattei Wong Architects

General Contractor: Turner Construction

Prime Design Consultant: Walker Parking Consultants

Sustainability: LEED Silver Certification; 97% of construction waste was recycled

Job Creation: 5,900 total; 3,900 during construction

Contains: 5.5 million tons of steel; 330 miles of post-tension cable; 120,000 cubic yds. of concrete; 6 school bus-size underground fuel tanks

"They were more interested and more open to what the rental car industry wanted out of this facility than in most places," Tallarico notes.

Why So Green?

SEA's Consolidated Rental Car Facility is the largest U.S. building of its kind to achieve silver certification from the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program. Obtaining certification was about achieving cost-saving measures to pass onto the facility's tenants, not to garner notoriety, stresses George England, program leader with the Port of Seattle.

The money-saving green features are, indeed, valued by the rental car companies who pay the building's ongoing operational expenses. Effective placement of tanks, pumps and washing stations help keep costs in control, notes Tallarico.

Fully 85% of the car wash water is reused, reports Reis. "When you recycle that much water, whether you feel being green is important or not, it certainly is cheaper," he notes.

An abundance of natural lighting also adds to the building's sustainability.

The energy, lighting and water efficiencies incorporated to save operating expenses over time will also pay off in the short-term, notes England. The local electric company is scheduled to pay the Port nearly $400,000 for incorporating the energy-saving systems.

Locating the facility's escalator cores outside the main building yielded less space to heat and cool, notes Greg Vouros, a design manager with the Port. Seattle's climate facilitates the strategy. Lowering the roof over the top-floor customer service building by 11 feet also reduced heating/cooling needs - by about 33%, he adds.

The floor-to-ceiling clearance in the parking areas was conversely raised compared to the previous garage, which was designed years before sport utility vehicles hit the market. The new garage space is engineered to accommodate SUVs with cargo containers or ski racks on top.

The recycling rate during construction was a noteworthy 97%, reports Rad Milosavljevic, resident engineer for the Port. Hiring a contractor that was familiar with LEED standards and having crews on board with the recycling efforts helped achieve the high rate, explains Milosavljevic.

More than 15,000 tons of concrete, metal, wood, mixed debris and residual trash was saved from landfills, adds Scott Holbrook, project executive from Turner Aviation/Construction.

The approach to LEED certification, notes England, was very specific: "We weren't going to ‘buy' points."

Remote, But Accessible

The immense size of the Consolidated Rental Car Facility (picture six football fields) posed some challenges in location and traffic management. The addition of the huge operation dramatically altered the airport's traffic patterns - a change for all airport customers, but more pronounced for those renting cars, who now ride a shuttle rather than walk to the terminal.

Reis acknowledges that most customers prefer to access rental cars at the terminal, but considers the 7- to 8-minute bus ride an acceptable change. "We think we've found the sweet spot of meeting the parking customers' needs and also providing a very convenient location for the rental car companies," he explains.

A fleet of 20 buses helps keep wait times to five minutes or less, 24/7 he adds.

Officials put a lot of thought into the bussing operation needed to accommodate the new facility's heavy volume of patrons, recalls Jeff Hoevet, senior manager for Airport Operations.

The most important part, says Hoevet, was hiring quality staff (65 people total) and training them before the facility opened. "We did a lot of work when we brought on this new employee group to make sure they understood the importance of customer service," he explains.

To accommodate the continual cycle of bus arrivals and departures, curb cuts were added to the terminal area, notes Hoevet. Saw tooth patterns at both the north and south ends of the main terminal allow buses to get in and out conveniently, with minimal interruption to the other activity, he explains.

Wayfinding signage was also carefully considered, Hoevet recalls. "Unless you're efficient at getting people in and out, the rest just doesn't work," he relates.

Highway access to the new facility is considered to be an unequivocal win. Reis describes it as "remarkable." SEA officials worked closely with the Washington State Department of Transportation to have exit and entrance ramps added to the nearby highway, specifically for rental car customers. The facility connects to Highway 518, which has a direct connection to Interstate 5, explains Hoevet.

Previously, rental cars would drive toward the terminal and into the parking garage, intermingling with vehicles dropping off and picking up passengers. Now, the highway exit for rental cars is located before the main airport exit - an advantage for rental car customers and other drivers alike.

The rental car companies also appreciate the change. "It's very advantageous," says Tallarico. "It makes getting out of the airport easier than being in the garage."

Even Steven

Knowing that competition is fierce among rental car companies, SEA retained Walker Parking Consultants early in the planning process (2002) to help keep the design of the rectangular facility fair and square.

The lobby, for instance, is concave, which gives each rental car company the same amount and quality of visual exposure. Flooring and wall finishes are neutral, to allow the color and graphics of the rental companies' corporate branding to take center stage, adds Vouros.

Artwork is a standout design feature elsewhere. The facility's two exterior helices are covered with a stainless steel mesh fabric that glows with changing colored LED lights after dark. At the car return location on the fifth floor, 91 six-foot steel discs of various colors and designs line the area.

Escalators were designed so customers don't have to ride more than two runs to reach their destinations. This makes circulation faster and decreases access times for all companies' counters, explains Vouros.

"We drew from how we worked with the airlines when working with the rental car companies," explains England. "It was a significant benefit having an individual who was responsible for getting consensus on any of the design aspects."

When the facility opened, Vouros notes, the rental car companies reported it was the smoothest overnight transition they had experienced for an operation of its size.

Paving the Way

There were challenges, however, before the successful outcome, Reis recalls. First came 9/11, which prompted many to question future demand for air travel. Then concern emerged about the state statute for collecting customer facility charges, a main factor in the facility's funding. Next, one of SEA's main airlines considered cutting its flight offerings. Finally, the fall of financial markets in 2008 complicated the airport's ability to fund the project.

In the end, however, Reis reports that the project was "sort of fun." He especially enjoyed seeing the facility grow from an empty shell into an operation teeming with activity. Building the facility on a greenfield site involved fewer headaches than construction at the main terminal, he adds.

SEA used a contractor/construction manager method for the project, which helped keep costs in check, notes Reis. The structure allowed the contractor to finalize a price at 90% of design completion, but work with the designer began much earlier in the process. Reis says the method helped the designer understand constructability issues and make the design the most "dollar-friendly" as possible.

Building on lessons learned at other facilities helped make the Consolidated Rental Car Facility what it is today and will be into the future, concludes England.

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