Jeffrey D. Allred, Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
A passenger leaves Terminal 1 at Salt Lake City International Airport in Salt Lake City Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2012.

Since the early days of flight, Salt Lake's leaders have recognized the local airport's importance to the economy. Back in 1931, only months after the field along North Temple had been renamed from Woodward Field to Salt Lake Municipal Airport, Verne G. Halliday, airport manager, wrote an opinion piece in the Salt Lake Herald, making the case for expansion.

The city should build a "large administration building, where the heavy mail load can be handled with dispatch and afford the proper accommodations to air passengers and to the public," he said, noting the airport provided $225,000 per year in payrolls.

Skeptics would note, with some credibility, that managers of public agencies seem unusually adept at advocating for the expansion of those agencies at all times. When it comes to what now is known as the Salt Lake City International Airport, however, the case for a massive rebuilding project, as unveiled by Mayor Ralph Becker this week, is compelling.

This is not because traffic at the airport is increasing dramatically. The documentation presented this week showed that slightly less than 21 million passengers came through the airport in fiscal year 2011. A master plan document published in 1997 said the airport handled just more than 21 million passengers in 1996, and it projected traffic would grow to 44.1 million by 2015. That isn't going to happen. Anyone who frequents the airport can attest to how busy it is at peak times, but its traffic load has remained steady for some time.

Other factors, however, have not. The needs of airports have changed post-9/11. So have opportunities for revenues from concessions. Salt Lake's airport gives the appearance of having evolved to meet its changing needs with little overall thought to orderly and logical planning. Before 1997, the master plan called for simply adding more terminals to the west as needed. The 1997 plan called for rebuilding the airport to resemble Denver's airport, with parallel terminals connected by a train. That $1.6 billion project never got off the ground.

That's a good thing, considering how wrong the growth projections were. Today's $1.8 billion project is more modest and realistic. It calls for one central terminal, with eventual concourses to either side. It incorporates three of the existing concourses for the foreseeable future, and actually reduces the number of gates from 86 to 74. Officials say this is because airlines are trending toward larger aircraft and fewer flights.

If one thing is certain, however, it is that trends and patterns in aviation are difficult to predict. This modest approach would seamlessly incorporate the new TRAX line and provide for a logical departure and arrival scheme that doesn't send passengers scrambling to figure out which terminal to use. It would leave airport managers with viable options for expanding or contracting, if necessary.

Perhaps most importantly, the new airport will be built to modern seismic codes. In the event of an earthquake, the airport would become a vital lifeline to supplies and emergency help.

The expansion will be financed entirely through airport-related fees. In an age famous for government debt and overreach, it is significant to note that the Salt Lake City International Airport is debt-free and has $250 million in cash on-hand. That is a commendable reflection of good management, and it makes the present day, with its relatively low-cost supplies and labor, the right time to build.