Originally created 08/11/00

Commission drops airport plan



They don't have the money, they don't have the resources and they don't have enough airlines, but that isn't stopping the Augusta Aviation Commission from seriously thinking about spending $110 million on a new terminal and a second runway at Augusta Regional Airport at Bush Field.

Since May, airport officials had been moving toward a less ambitious $25 million improvement project that included $14 million for a new terminal and $7 million for roadway improvements.

In June, city officials encouraged the commission to look at all possible scenarios for a new terminal and put what's best for the community above any cost considerations.

Last week, interim airport Director Tim Weegar received the financial feasibility reports from Newton & Associates, an aviation consultant firm based in Charlotte, N.C.

On Thursday morning, the Augusta Aviation Commission reviewed those reports and voted 8-1 to suspend design work on the original $25 million terminal project. In the next few months, the airport will begin analyzing a proposal for a midfield terminal and a second runway.

The feasibility reports show the airport can afford the original $25 million project, which would be built at the existing terminal site. With a general airport revenue bond, the airport could finance the entire project itself, paying $1.1 million per year for 27 years.

A second option, a three-level terminal building with a two-level roadway built at the site of the existing terminal, would cost about $39.5 million. As Mr. Weegar explained, the airport would pay $1.1 million per year for 27 years, and the city would need to finance a second bond at about $1.7 million for 27 years.

In the third option, the midfield terminal, a two-level building with a two-level roadway, would require a new administration area, rental car facilities, parking and other improvements. The cost, according to LPA Group Inc., would be $51.7 million. In that plan, the city's portion would jump to $3 million per year for 27 years.

"Where in the world are we going to get that kind of money?" Whitney O'Keefe asked his fellow aviation board members during their meeting Thursday morning.

Stephen Harrill, program manager for the LPA Group Inc., said the $51 million does not include a second runway (an additional $50 million) or the necessary roadway improvements ($10 million).

Mr. Harrill said the numbers are as conservative as possible.

"If you're looking for the ultimate development of this airport and a parallel runway, then this (at midfield) is probably not the precise location you would want it," Mr. Harrill said. ".ƒ.ƒ.If you really want to build this thing the right way, it's going to be more involved, more complicated and more expensive than what we've shown."

Advocates of the $110 million project say revenue from the proposed airplane repair facility and mechanics school, coupled with Garrett Aviation's continued growth and the prospect of the relocation of other air-related industry to Bush Field, eventually will offset the high costs.

The consultants aren't quite so enthusiastic.

"The question of determining the feasibility of a terminal development program for the Augusta Regional Airport is complicated by the fact that passenger traffic is projected to remain relatively flat during the forecast period," the feasibility study states.

Enplanements - the number of people who board or exit a plane - at Bush Field have dropped steadily from 218,000 in 1998 to 209,000 in 1999 to a projected 195,000 in 2000.

"In our opinion, both the expanded terminal concept or the midfield terminal concept are beyond the airport's financing capabilities. We doubt either of these two concepts would be supported by the airlines serving the airport nor have either of these concepts been considered by the FAA," the study states.

Aviation Commission Chairman Ed Skinner, the only board member to oppose the $51 million project, said, "Anybody in business knows you can't do something if you can't pay for it."

"We need to be realistic about this thing," he said. "We're looking at Savannah with 800,000 enplanements. We have 200,000. We're talking about doing something here with no possibility of bringing more than 400,000 enplanements!"

But Aviation Commission member Marcie Wilhelmi said six city commissioners have told her they will support the ambitious plan if the airport board approves it.

"I think finally we are getting to a point where our local government is taking a look at bigger pictures. They don't want to repeat the civic center disaster," Ms. Wilhelmi said.

Aviation Commission member Ernie Smith said he thinks the $25 million project would be obsolete in 10 years.

"As a former air traffic controller and a consultant, I can tell you we need two runways. . . . Every major airport in this country that is thriving has a midfield airport with parallel runways."

Mayor Bob Young said the city is interested in making sure the airport board makes the smart decision. "We were concerned whether we were building a terminal in Augusta for the next 10 years or are we building it for the next 40 or 50 years," he said. "Let's sit down and look at some of these other options that are out there and maybe there are some things that we can bring to the table from the city side, put with the resources you have, and do it right the first time."

Reach Justin Martin at (706) 823-3552.