Salt Lake City airport overhaul finally taking flight

Transportation • Design work to start this year on $1.8B project's concourses, central terminal.
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Salt Lake City is throttling up the jets on its long-delayed airport reconstruction plan, plotting a $1.8 billion makeover to break ground next year with freshly secured airline support.

Mayor Ralph Becker on Tuesday night announced that the city had reached accord with Delta and the other airlines over the last month — a crucial step because the carriers would pay hundreds of millions of dollars toward the project — and said design work should begin this summer.

A new airport with striking views of the mountains and a window to the future as a major hub would "express our ascendancy" as a city, Becker said in his State of the City address.

"Visitors to the airport," he said, "should experience a wonderful gateway to Salt Lake City, to our state and to the Intermountain West."

"It has been years of stop and go," the mayor said before his speech, with previous hopes dashed by, among other snags, post-9/11 business uncertainty and Delta's bankruptcy restructuring.

But the airline support now means a more efficient Delta hub would help drive the city's economic development, he said. A new, single terminal to replace the existing three at Salt Lake City International Airport could be ready by 2018.

David Hamm, Delta's managing director of corporate real estate, said the rapidly aging hub and the earthquake risk prompted the decision for a complete overhaul.

"The conclusion at the end of the day is that building new provides a better economic return," he said. "It's a fiscally responsible plan. The economics make sense to move forward."

Passenger numbers neared 21 million last year, marking a slow but steady increase.

"While still boasting top honors in on-time departures and receiving accolades for excellence, our airport's aging facilities, seismic risks and need to accommodate growth, demand capital improvements," Becker said in his speech. "We need a new airport."

The plan would require incremental approval from the Federal Aviation Administration as construction stages progress. Given airline support, airport Executive Director Maureen Riley said, "we have every indication that they are excited about Salt Lake's proposal."

The overhaul also would need annual budget approval from the City Council. The city would not pay the bill, though. Airlines would cover about $300 million in bonds for the project, Riley said, while passenger fees and fee-backed bonds would pay the largest share of the rest. Those fees already are maxed out at $4.50 per passenger flight segment, so they would not change unless Congress approves an increase.

Members of the City Council were excited by Tuesday's announcement.

"We all know that our airport is dated and tired," Councilwoman Jill Remington Love said after the mayor's address. "It's great that we have a commitment from Delta going forward."

The airport, which is debt-free, also has $250 million in reserve from previous passenger fees. Other funds would come through federal grants and rental-car fees.

The new airport actually would have fewer gates, but would use them more efficiently to allow growth in flight numbers. Today's airport has 86 gates, airport spokeswoman Barbara Gann said, but 30 of them are outdoor boarding areas used only for smaller regional flights. The new layout would have 74 gates, and all would be equipped to handle any flight.

The new terminal would replace 50-year-old Terminal 1, 33-year-old Terminal 2 and 15-year-old International Terminal. A new parking structure would replace the 20-year-old rental-car and short-term garage.

Preliminary sketches place the new terminal west of the existing parking structure with a new concourse stretching farther west from there. The light-rail line, now under construction from downtown Salt Lake City, would extend to the new terminal, and the new parking structure would go south of the new terminal.

The city then would demolish Concourse E and build a new concourse stretching east from the new terminal with extensions connecting to concourses A, B, C and D. Ultimately crews would demolish Concourse A before completing the project in about 2022, while B, C and D would remain in service as spokes off of the new construction's east end.

For now, Riley said, the airport has scrapped a long-discussed plan to remove those concourses and build a remote, northern concourse parallel to the new west and east concourses. The idea behind that scheme was to allow planes to move in one end and out the other, reducing taxi time and delays caused by taking turns backing out of U-shaped spaces between today's concourses.

Instead, an airline trend toward fewer flights on larger-capacity planes appears to have made the extra gates unnecessary. The airlines could reassess whether building a remote concourse served by an underground train from the terminal makes sense after this project is done.

The longer west concourse, uncluttered by neighboring spoke concourses, would be reserved for Delta and allow for quick turnaround without negotiating the remaining U-shaped spaces on the east end, Gann said.

The blueprint is encouraging news, said Councilman Carlton Christensen, particularly after more than a decade of delays.

"Getting the airport and the economy aligned is no small miracle," the four-term councilman said. "I didn't think I'd see it before I left office."

The new airport also would have more retail concessions space and more shops outside of security gates than currently exist.

That's good news to Squatters Pub and other current tenants, who are eager to invest in the new space.

An upgraded airport could mean new and renewed airline contracts and expanded flight offerings, Squatters development director Amy Coady said. "It's more people walking though."

Tribune reporter Derek P. Jensen contributed to this story.

Plans for a new and renewed airport

• One terminal to replace three and improve efficiency.

• Two new concourses extending east and west from terminal.

• Three existing concourses accessed through the new east wing.

• 74 multipurpose gates to replace 86, 30 of which are equipped only for short-hop commuter flights.