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Maui-style airport car rental facility is about ready to roll

Plantation meets modern at CONRAC: Two trains, or trams, will take travelers on a 4-minute ride from baggage area to facility

A van drives down Kahului Airport’s new CONRAC facility exit ramp Tuesday, which requires a single turning radius. The $340 million consolidated rental car and train project, which is funded entirely by a daily Hawaii rental car fee, is on schedule to open May 15. -- The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

KAHULUI — Planes, trains and automobiles are roaring to life at Kahului Airport, thanks in part to a new $340 million facility that’s on schedule to open May 15.

The project, a 1.3 million-square-foot, four-level consolidated rental car (CONRAC) building and its electric train system, is funded by a state rental car charge. Work began in April 2016 and was completed earlier this year. Most of what’s left for launch day is the outfitting of office and counter spaces by a dozen airport rental car companies, who officials say lead state airports in revenue.

The building, which sits on roughly 19 acres, will hold rental car company offices; customer service counters; about 4,500 parking stalls; 72 fuel pumps; quick turnaround service bays for oil, water and air; vehicle washing racks; ready and return rental car spaces; and upper-level airport staff parking.

Two trains, or trams, were the most discussed portion of the major project, Maui Airports District Manager Marvin Moniz said during a sneak peek last week. Officials had discussed a variety of ways to transport people to and from the CONRAC, and they finally landed on two double-car trams that pay homage to plantation-style trains of older Hawaii.

“One of the first (train) pitches looked like Disneyland,” Moniz said.

Maui Airports District Manager Marvin Moniz checks out one of Kahului Airport’s new trams Tuesday morning. Each car of the two dual-car trams will hold 30 passengers and will run at 15 mph on a four-minute trip from the CONRAC to its starting point near baggage claim and back. -- The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

The Aloha State native took pictures of old-school Lahaina and Kauai trains for designers and pushed for “something that’s Maui.”

Each car, which is named after a Maui County island, holds 30 passengers. One train will run daily from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., possibly longer depending on rental agencies, with a second one deployed during peak passenger hours of 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Trams move along a line that picks up voltage under the rail and powers the motor. Also, a train driver will hold a dead man switch and monitor for anything potentially in the track.

“We are always looking out for safety,” said Melanie Burgess, one of five new airport tram drivers. “We want people to get to their rental car without delays.”

What’s distinctive about the system’s construction, according to tram project manager Lee Larson, is the track, which converts into a crosswalk by folding into a pit. The transition appears to be part rotating mechanism, part Transformer-style movie.

“It’s definitely a unique feature,” Larsen said. “The public interacts with it well, especially since it says audibly that it’s closing.”

A 36-pump fueling station is housed on the third level of the CONRAC facility. The second level holds another 36-pump station, making refueling accessible for one dozen rental car agencies that will soon call the new CONRAC home. -- The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

The train, which will travel 15 mph, will make two to three stops and require four minutes to move from one end of the track to the other, significantly cutting waiting and shuttle time to existing car rental facilities located outside the airport.

“I do think it’s a positive thing,” said a Kahului Airport Thrifty Car Rental manager on Saturday who declined to give a name since media interviews are not authorized. “It will be really nice.”

The tram will replace two dozen shuttle buses that carry passengers in an average of 85 trips per hour to rental car companies makai of the airport terminal, the state Department of Transportation has said.

Although not solar-powered as originally planned, the trains require power only for the section it crosses during any given time.

“I’m very happy with how it turned out” Larsen said, as people were hustling around the tram maintenance unit last week, preparing for launch day. “It’s done well.”

Maui Airports District Manager Marvin Moniz leads a tour of Kahului Airport’s new CONRAC facility Tuesday. Moniz led many of the design decisions for the $340 million consolidated rental car and train project. -- The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Moving down the train line toward the CONRAC, the new crosswalks, light posts and fencing come into view.

Fences required more design decisions, Moniz said. Despite a proposal of spearlike fencing, which looked sort of like a cemetery, Moniz settled on curving green sections that appear more natural and provide durability and longevity.

“We had our share of arguments,” he added, with a laugh. “But that’s from the guys who don’t live here.”

Tall, ornate street lamps line the path to the four-level, open-air CONRAC. Signage for airport motorists, as well as plaques directing CONRAC pedestrians, are starting to go up.

Stepping into the CONRAC feels like walking into a brand-new airport. Native plants fill decorative boxes near the seating areas. Lava rock-style pillars contrast with the softer texture and colors of facility wall tile siding. Although the ceiling appears to be wooden panels, it’s actually made of aluminum, Moniz said.

A painting crew from J.D. Painting breaks for lunch Tuesday near where the tram will load and unload passengers. -- The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

And then there is the elegant, vintage-inspired train station clock.

“We lobbied for this,” he said.

Shells hold spots where the new tenants are making their homes. Rental car agencies are currently constructing office and front-desk spaces. Nearby, escalators will eventually move pedestrians through the lower floors.

Behind the offices, the remainder of the CONRAC opens up to thousands of empty parking spaces that will hold ready and returned rental cars. Along one wall are Quick-Turn-Around bays that provide air, water, oil, lights and other maintenance features. Farther back are refueling pumps and the far end holds car wash rigs.

Much of the layout repeats on lower floors.

A vintage-looking clock tower highlights the main floor of the four-level consolidated rental car building. Seating areas, rental agency office and front desk units and escalators to lower floors are located nearby. -- The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

The top level of the CONRAC will hold airport employee parking and rental car inventory overflow. Employees will depart by descending a cylindrical, winding tower that requires the same turning radius for each curve.

Even the top floor lights had to be researched, Moniz said.

“We had to figure out which lights don’t attract birds, which ones don’t impact pilots,” he said.

And don’t ask Moniz about all the rustproofing work. That could be its own story.

Overall, the outlook is strong for Maui’s rental car industry. The Valley Isle accounts for 35 percent of car rental revenues statewide, according to Sen. Gil Keith-Agaran (Wailuku, Waihee, Kahului).

Kahului Airport rental car companies made double what Oahu did last year, Moniz said.

“We always outpace them,” he said, adding that more than 2,000 cars are rented on a good day.

The CONRAC stayed pretty close to budget, Moniz said. The state Department of Transportation said no taxpayer money is being used for the $340 million project; instead, it is being funded entirely by the Customer Facility Charge (CFC), a daily charge of $4.50 to those who rent a car in Hawaii.

In 2010, Sen. J. Kalani English (Hana, East and Upcountry Maui, Molokai, Lanai and Kahoolawe), then-chair of the Transportation Committee, introduced along with co-sponsor Sen. Rosalyn Baker (South and West Maui) a bill that would provide funding for rental car improvements statewide. It paved the way for CFC, which supported the CONRAC on Maui, along with a nearly complete $330 million CONRAC project at Daniel K. Inouye International Airport in Honolulu.

Also, with the scheduled arrival of Southwest Airlines next month, tourism and travel officials predict even more people will be coming to Maui. The airlines previously said it will employ 30 people at Kahului Airport.

For Moniz, the CONRAC and Kahului Airport improvements, which he said employed 300-350 workers during construction, mean more jobs for local people.

“It’s good for Maui,” he said. “It’s good for jobs.”

* Kehaulani Cerizo can be reached at kcerizo@mauinews.com.