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Sunday, April 20, 2014

Wichita council members say they are ready to support new airport terminal

BY FRED MANN
The Wichita Eagle

A majority of Wichita City Council members say they are ready to approve building a new terminal and parking garage at Wichita's Mid-Continent Airport.

The project, under consideration for years and on hold since October, will be up for a council vote June 21. Council members will hear from the public at that meeting.

"It's about time. It's 50 years overdue," Mayor Carl Brewer said.

The new facilities are projected to cost $200 million — $160 million for the terminal and $40 million for the garage.

If the council approves, bidding would begin later this summer, with construction set to start next spring. The new terminal would open in 2015.

Council members heard Tuesday that local financial conditions have improved since they suspended the project in October over concerns about more aircraft layoffs, a chance that Hawker Beechcraft might leave for Louisiana, and the possibility that state lawmakers might vote against subsidizing low-cost airlines that fly out of Wichita.

The economy has stabilized, and passenger trends support the project, airport and city officials said.

In addition, the city would have to repay about $22 million in federal money already spent on the project if it doesn't go forward, airport director Victor White told council members at a workshop Tuesday.

White said no local tax dollars are to be used. The project would be paid for with passenger fees, facility charges, concessions, parking fees, airport revenue, rents, landing fees and grants from the Federal Aviation Administration and Transportation Security Administration.

About 65 percent of the funding for the new terminal — $104.7 million —would come from pay-as-you-go sources such as federal grants and airport cash. The rest would come from bond proceeds, he said.

Plans also establish an average annual net income target of $2 million for the airport, with reserve funds for debt service payments and operations and maintenance expenses.

Current terminal

The current terminal, built in 1953, is functionally obsolete and isn't compliant with federal security and handicap accessibility requirements or building codes, city officials have said.

Plans for the new terminal include passenger boarding bridges at all gates; a shorter walk to the farthest gates; improved food and beverage amenities closer to the gates; a more spacious greeting area; and improved efficiency in passenger security screening, ticketing and baggage claim.

White told council members the cost of renovating or expanding the existing terminal would be about the same as building a new one, and it would present challenges such as a longer disruption of existing operations.

The timing is right to go forward because construction and fuel costs will likely go up, White said after the workshop. "By jumping in now, we will get probably the best prices we will ever get," he said.

Council opinions

Council member Jeff Longwell noted the city can take advantage of lower construction rates and a conservative financial model that shows the city can pay for the terminal without putting Wichita taxpayers at risk.

Longwell said a new airport would face a "strong upside" if the city lands Southwest Airlines and draws some new employers.

"But even without that," he said, "we're still in a position to pay for it, so why not move forward?"

New council member James Clendenin said he also wants the project to proceed.

"I think the process has been vetted quite well and I'm looking to get this moving in a forward direction," he said.

"We have a very inefficient, expensive building to run, and remodeling will cost a tremendous amount of money to bring it into compliance."

New council member Michael O'Donnell said he doesn't support building a new terminal. It isn't a good idea to build the city's first new airport in 50 years during a recession, he added.

The city considered a new terminal in 2004 and 2006 when the economy was better, he said.

"It would've been much easier for me to run with it if our economy was the same as in 2004 and 2006, but it's not," he said.

O'Donnell said he would support doing something different with the airport, but planners at the workshop didn't show the cost of renovating the existing facility.

"Anytime I make a big decision in my life, I always make a couple of options. We were presented one idea today. It just didn't seem like there was any room for negotiation," O'Donnell said.

Also, federal money comes from taxpayers, he said.

"I do like the project and it looks great," he said. "It just worries me that we continue to expand when we have no money. It is a risk, no matter what."

Council member Janet Miller said she wants the project to go forward. She said she felt good about the projections made by airport and city staff for passenger and financial growth, as well as plans to repay debt.

She also is pleased that operational costs are built into a budget that projects a positive net income of $2 million.

"That will allow us not only to operate in the black, but add to cash reserves," she said.

New council member Pete Meitzner was traveling and did not attend the workshop. He said that during his campaign, the cost of a new airport made his eyes glaze over and he thought it would burden taxpayers.

Although he still has questions for city staff, he said, "If the airport sufficiently funds what it does by all the fees and the federal obligations, as long as it's not a burden to the city or county taxpayers, I think it has some merit."

Council member Lavonta Williams couldn't be reached.

Reach Fred Mann at 316-268-6310 or fmann@wichitaeagle.com.

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