Things are looking up at the San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport

After backing away in recent years from ambitious expansion plans, county airport managers are taking tentative steps forward, asking the Board of Supervisors this week for permission to upgrade parking and the terminal.

Specifically, managers want to spend $700,000 to install new and upgrade existing lighting in Parking Lot 5, down the hill from the terminal, improve lighting for pedestrian paths, and put in 12 stand-alone parking kiosks.

At the terminal, they want to gain more space for passengers who’ve gone through screening and are waiting to depart by enclosing a 500-square-foot area just outside the door where they leave the terminal for boarding. This open-air section is now covered. Airport managers estimate that project will cost $125,000.

In a report to the Board of Supervisors, General Services Director Janette Pell wrote that both the airlines and the Transportation Security Administration have warned that the security area “presents a potential threat for a security breach due to overcrowding.”

Pell wrote that there has been a “growth trend” after years of passenger declines because of the economy and its deleterious effect on the airlines.

According to Pell’s charts, the number of people boarding airplanes locally has increased over the year-earlier periods — by 1,006 from January through March, by 3,047 from April through June and by 3,333 from July through September.

Even with the increases, fewer passengers are using the local airport, according to Pell’s figures. For example, the 36,301 boardings from July through September are well below the number in the same quarter three years ago, when there were 51,343.

Nonetheless, the airport is experiencing a positive growth trend after years of plunging passenger numbers, and it has affected the ability of the airport to deal with service needs, Pell wrote.

Adding to the crowding problem, Pell wrote, is the fact that airlines are moving to larger planes, and “there is a potential that many of our existing daily flights currently using 30-seat aircraft would be replaced with aircraft using 50 or more seats.”

As to the parking improvements, Pell wrote that the county has received claims for trips and falls in the Lot 5 area. She added that the new self-pay parking kiosks will allow credit or debit cards, which the current system does not. They would be similar to those used at Pismo Beach and Port San Luis.

Expansion at the San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport has been a subject of controversy in recent years. Hundreds of thousands of federal, state and local tax dollars have been set aside for expansion. But a new parking garage and larger terminal had to be put on hold when the economy stumbled.

Local civic and business leaders have maintained that the county needs an airport, not only functionally, but also symbolically, to show that San Luis Obispo is a Central Coast leader.Others have argued that the local airport is swallowing too many taxpayer dollars; some have even called it unnecessary, with another regional airport available half an hour away in Santa Maria.

Supervisors will be asked to approve the expansion and expenditures today. They need four out of five votes to pass. The meeting is scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. at the supervisors’ chambers in the County Government Center, 1055 Monterey St. in San Luis Obispo.