SALT LAKE CITY — The plan is still conceptual, Maureen Riley warns. How it will be executed is unclear, and it's likely to change over the next eight to 10 years.
That's the reality of the planned $1.8 billion rebuild of Salt Lake City International Airport, its executive director said.
Riley has remained rooted in reality as she's fielded questions during the past month about redevelopment plans for the nation's 26th busiest airport.
But beneath the pretense of practicality, Riley is as enthusiastic as anyone to see the airport she's headed since 2007 address longstanding seismic risks and accommodate projected growth in passenger levels.
"I think generally people are very supportive and excited," she said.
They also have plenty of questions about the project, including its price tag, its lengthy timeline for construction and even its necessity.
During the next six months, plans will be refined. And city and airport officials said they want the project to remain flexible throughout construction to accommodate an ever-evolving industry.
"That's a great advantage for us, especially with a project this size," Riley said. "We're taking some time up front to really plan the entire 10-year construction period, which in the end, I think, will work as an advantage for us."
Here are answers to key questions about the expansion, first announced by Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker during his State of the City address in January.
Where is the $1.8 billion coming from? Will tax dollars be used? Will it cost more to fly, rent cars, check baggage, etc.?
Becker called the airport expansion a "massive undertaking" and said there would be "no additional burden on Salt Lake City taxpayers." And airport officials said they can fund the project without slapping travelers with additional fees, either.
Is it true? The airport already has more than $250 million in the bank to put toward the project and to use as security for $302 million in general airport revenue bonds.
"That puts the airport in a good position to start on a project like this," Becker said.
Much of that money has been saved since 2008, when the airport retired its debt from previous construction and renovation projects, said Barbara Gann, airport spokeswoman.
The airport also has been setting aside funds for more than a decade to replace or renovate terminals and concourses, some of which are more than 50 years old.
"We knew, with these aging facilities, we'd need to pay to keep renovating them or replace them," Gann said.
The project's financing plan also calls for the use of passenger facility charges — a fee levied by the Federal Aviation Administration on every leg of a flight. Because the project would enhance safety by addressing seismic concerns at the airport, those funds could be used for the rebuild, if approved as expected by the FAA.
The airport also plans to use the fees to back $557 million in revenue bonds.
Another funding source is fees collected from rental cars. Those fees already are being charged and rates are not expected to increase, Gann said.
The only cost increase would be incurred by airlines for rental and landing fees. Under the proposed financing plan, airlines would pay 3 cents more per passenger — from $3.58 to $3.61 — in fees to the airport. That would still rank among the lowest in the nation. Denver International Airport, for example, charges $12.24 per passenger.
Delta Air Lines, which accounts for 73 percent of the flights at the airport, has agreed to the increase, as has Southwest, Gann said.
The airport also is counting on $238 million in grants through the FAA's Airport Improvement Program and other one-time funding.
That doesn't mean airfares won't increase, Riley said. But that could happen even if the airport isn't rebuilt.
The biggest components in airlines' costs are labor and fuel, she said. The cost to operate in an airport generally represents between 5 percent and 7 percent of an airline's expenses.
"While we are a part of their cost, we're a nominal part," Riley said. "It's much more likely that airfares would be influenced by an increase in the price of jet fuel."
How long will construction last? Will it make trips to the airport miserable?
Maintaining the airport's easy-to-navigate reputation has been a top priority in the redevelopment plans, city and airport officials said.
"One of our key goals is it has to remain customer-friendly," Riley said.
Construction on the project is expected to begin in 2013, following a year of environmental assessment, planning, public outreach and design. Completion is tentatively slated for 2022.
The project is proposed to be "phased and staged in a way that we can operate efficiently without impacting customer service to a large degree," Gann said.
A big reason for that, she said, is that much of the new airport will be built on existing open space.
Plans call for a construction of a new terminal, with concourses on the east and west sides, and a new parking garage to the south.
The new terminal is proposed to be built just west of the existing parking garage, which will allow crews to complete and open that building, along with the west concourse, before tearing down any existing buildings.
The new parking garage also would be completed before the existing structure is razed.
"There will places where we will need to strategically impact the customers," Gann said. "It's been planned out in a way so that impact will be minimized."
A few headaches for travelers could arise from the staged opening of the east concourse, where officials plan to open gates on the south side while still constructing gates to the north.
Temporary roadways also will be needed to accommodate the new construction, meaning motorists will need to pay attention to signs indicating changing routes.
"The idea is to phase this in a way that there will be no disruption of operations at the airport," Becker said. "That's part of the reason it will take so long."
Why does the airport need to be rebuilt? And why does it need to happen now?
Airport officials have been in discussions with their main tenant, Delta Air Lines, for several years about the future of the airport.
In recent years, those talks have centered on two options: renovate or rebuild.
"At the end of that analysis, everyone agreed we should build new," Riley said.
The driving force being the rebuild is safety. All buildings at the airport currently are at seismic risk because of their age and location, Gann said.
A seismic retrofit for the airport, Riley said, "would have been almost unmanageable."
"It would have added many, many years to the project," she explained. "It would have had to be implemented in very small increments, so we would have been under renovation for years and years just to get through that."
A seismic retrofit would trim between 10 percent and 15 percent off the construction cost, Riley said, but it wouldn't take into account the cost of prolonged disruption — "things that are hard to put a price tag on."
Becker said rebuilding the airport has been in the works for about 15 years. Several plans have come and gone during that time, including a $1 billion expansion proposed in 1998 and a nearly $1.5 billion reconstruction announced in 2001 — just months before 9/11.
"Over the years, we've been close to a lot of different ideas, but things have intervened — like the declining economy, the rise of oil prices, 9/11 or the impacts to the aviation industry overall," Gann said.
"There have been various times … when our airport folks have worked toward an airport renovation and reconstruction where the project moved forward and then stopped," Becker said. "We're now at the point where we have the go-ahead to do the reconstruction."
Will the new airport be able to handle projected growth? Will it be expanded in the future?
Today, Salt Lake City International Airport serves nearly 21 million passengers per year.
Once the airport is rebuilt, it will be able to handle about 24 million — with room for expansion beyond that.
"Our plan is that this is the last airport we're ever going to build," Riley said. "It needs to be able to last well into the 100-year plane."14 comments on this story
Plans for the rebuilt airport actually call for 12 fewer gates than exist today, though Gann says they'll be more efficient.
"All 74 gates will be able to accommodate all kinds of aircraft," she said. "They will be multi-use, multipurpose gates."
Airport officials also are keeping the options open for possible new technologies that could be introduced before 2015 — when the terminal is expected to be under construction.
"What we have to do is remain flexible in our design so we can accommodate and incorporate those technologies that will make sense for us," Riley said.