Winging It: Airport cell-phone lot in a holding pattern

Posted: September 07, 2009

It's taken only five years, but Philadelphia International Airport may be on the verge of creating a new cell-phone waiting lot that motorists can find easily and will use heavily.

Many other big airports have such lots already. Isn't there a place under Philadelphia International's control where vehicles could wait, free of charge, for a call from an arriving passenger to be picked up?

It turns out there is, and airport staffers have been busy drawing up plans to make it work. When, or if, the new lot is created is another matter, but just making plans is a step forward in this long-running drama.

In case you missed the news, state police last week began vigorously enforcing the no-parking law on the shoulders of I-95 and other highways leading to the airport.

This dangerous parking practice has mushroomed since we all got cell phones, and since Philadelphia police, after 9/11, began showing no mercy to drivers who pause outside the airport's baggage-claim buildings.

Signs on the highways and on the airport itself direct drivers to use the Bartram Avenue "park-and-ride lot," which also bears a small sign calling it the "cell phone lot." PennDot owns the lot and lets the airport use it.

Some motorists manage to locate the lot, and a few say it works just fine as a place to wait.

But many others say that the lot is poorly lit at night and that it is hard to find because none of the signs provide good directions to reach it from I-95 or within the airport.

The place the airport staff has studied for a new lot is the western end of the now-abandoned stretch of Route 291 that runs between the south side of I-95 and the airport's entrance roads.

The four-lane road has been closed to traffic since 291, also known as Industrial Highway, was rerouted a couple of years ago onto Bartram, north of I-95, so the airport could lengthen its north-south runway.

Airport spokesman Mark Pesce told me last week that Philadelphia International's engineering staff has studied how to use part of that pavement for the new cell-phone facility, including providing access to and from the arrivals road. The estimated cost to get it ready would be $250,000 to $300,000.

The plan will be one possible solution to be discussed at a meeting scheduled for next Monday by Rina Cutler, Philadelphia's deputy mayor for transportation and utilities, with airport managers and state and federal highway officials.

But Andrew Stober, the director of strategic initiatives in Cutler's office, called a new lot only "a medium-term possibility," meaning it would take time to design it, build it, and figure out how to pay for it. For now, he said, the city will concentrate on providing better directions to the park-and-ride lot.

Pesce said the airport's Web site, www.phl.org, now has a flashing "park-and-ride cell-phone lot" link that provides directions.

U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak, the Delaware County Democrat, jumped into the issue last week, too, asking the heads of the Federal Highway Administration and PennDot to help find a better solution to the problem than just issuing traffic citations.

But let's hope that the no-parking enforcement continues. This is Philly, and if drivers can park with impunity in the middle of South Broad Street, they're going to try to park on the airport entrance ramps, no matter how dangerous it might be.

When you think about it, if you're a motorist who doesn't know what else to do, pulling off on those ramps is just as logical as parking in the middle of South Broad. Other airports provide cell-phone lots in similarly logical places - at or near the points where drivers first come onto airport property.

That doesn't work here because the I-95 ramps are not on airport property. That's also the underlying reason there are no directional signs from the highway to the cell-phone lot.

Airport officials have said for years that PennDot controls the signage on I-95. Once we started asking PennDot about that, their officials said it's not just us, it's the Federal Highway Administration, which has strict rules about cluttering interstate highway signs with too much information.

Airport officials always remind us there is an alternative to looking for free parking: Pay $3 for 30 minutes or $5 for an hour to park in an airport lot or garage.

If that's too much of a hassle for you, go scouting near the airport. If you're coming from the south, get off I-95 and go north on Route 291 from Lester. Heading south on I-95, take the Enterprise Avenue exit or the one for Route 291 just before the airport that puts you on Bartram Avenue.

As you prowl, look for places where you can park legally on the street, or for hotels or office buildings with parking lots where your chances of being towed are no greater than they are in the middle of South Broad.

Then, as you wait, you can dream of the day in another few years when you won't have to do your own parking reconnaissance work.


Contact Tom Belden at 215-854-2454 or tbelden@phillynews.com.

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