Airport Future

Board seeks bigger terminal

Posted: Sunday, April 02, 2006

Juneau Airport Board members say the city will not pay a penny for $76 million in airport improvements - if their funding plan works.

The board has outlined potential funders, which include the Federal Aviation Administration with $25 million, air passenger charges totaling $3 million and additional airport revenue bonds equaling $8 million. The board asked the city to support a high-priority request for $20 million from the state and another $20 million from the federal government, which the Juneau Assembly did, Chairman Ron Swanson said.

It's a second attempt at a plan Juneau voters declined to pay for last year.

"I want to make clear the Airport Board is not seeking a penny from the city," Swanson said. "There is no plan to go to voters and ask them for money."

At a meeting with board members, Mayor Bruce Botelho said he found it problematic that despite a poll saying voters may go for an airport plan if it was scaled down, the board presented it in essentially the same form. Assembly member Jonathan Anderson also said he had a hard time accepting the same version that was rejected by voters.

"As a legislator here, what I need to be presented with is a series of options, which I can weigh and say if we spend this much we get this, or get that," Anderson said. "It seemed all or nothing."

"But if they secure state and federal funding, then I am all for it."

Although there is hope of receiving some funds from the federal government, Swanson said he does not have a great deal of confidence in getting $20 million. He said the board cannot seek money from the state directly, but goes through the city instead.

There is support from those who think Alaska's capital needs a better portal.

"I strongly believe in improving airport facilities and covered parking," said state Rep. Bruce Weyhrauch, R-Juneau. "If I get the funds for the airport it will go directly to the airport and not to the city."

"The polls show people support it."

In October Juneau voters rejected extending a sales tax to expand the airport. The plan to renovate Juneau International Airport was too confusing to voters in October, according to a citywide survey. The Juneau-based McDowell Group polled 400 residents to learn why two ballot initiatives failed in the last city election.

Airport administrators continue to favor more than $75 million worth of improvements that include additional baggage belts, renovations, a covered parking area and a new wing. They are not courting airlines, but say they want to be ready when the time comes.

About 28 percent of polled voters who opposed the airport plan said it was too expensive, and 27 percent said it was not necessary. But 61 percent said they would support the plan if they had more information demonstrating the needs.

"We are fighting growth, a deteriorating infrastructure and construction inflation," said board member Eric Forrer. "A million dollars has already been spent over four years for the plans and we have come up with the best project. People reacted to the millions we were talking about, but the Airport Board is actually traditional and conservative."

Forrer said polls contradict October's vote.

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"The board failed to get an accurate vision out to the public," Forrer said. "If voters had a better understanding they would see these proposals are essential to a good airport."

Juneau shouldn't oppose a project that brings spending to - rather than taking from - the community, Swanson said. If the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Home Depot and others wanted to spend $76 million here, nobody would say to downsize their projects, he said.

"The terminal is old and the infrastructure tired," Airport Manager Alan Heese said. "It is not like a (state) capital airport."

According to the Juneau Convention and Visitors Bureau, last summer there were more than 157,000 arrivals at the airport between May and September. In 2004 there were about 150,000 arrivals during the same period.

"Last summer we actually had the highest number of arrivals in the history of the airport during the high traffic period between May and September," bureau President and CEO Lorene Palmer said.

Some voters did not believe the renovations would help the airport lure a second carrier.

Condor and other international airlines have been mentioned by Swanson on a "wish list." Condor is an airline based in Germany, operating services to the Mediterranean, Asia, Africa, North America and the Caribbean. This includes Anchorage, Fairbanks and Whitehorse.

"Of course we would be delighted if someone like Condor comes in, but any money spent is not directly related to any competition to Alaska Airlines," Forrer said. "It would be inappropriate for the board to look for competition from the existing fleet at the airport."

"Nobody, including Condor, has said, 'If you do this job then we will come in,'" Forrer said.

Condor Airlines representatives in Germany did not respond to telephone calls by press time.

Alaska Airlines has not taken a position on the airport proposal, said Amanda Tobin, the company's spokeswoman.

"Alaska Airlines supports airport plans that offer our passengers a positive travel experience." Tobin said. "We believe the airport improvements proposed would provide additional benefits to passengers."

"However, we recognize these projects come at a cost to the public and the airline," Tobin said. "We remain concerned that airports maintain cost structures that are feasible for carriers."

The city would have a difficult, if not impossible, time of accommodating an international airline without the improvement, Swanson said. He said the board was not in discussions with any airlines now, but want to be prepared.

"If we wanted to bring in 300 people on international flights twice a week, where would we put the bags?" Swanson said. "Airlines generally come to facilities and ask, 'What can you offer us'" Swanson said.

"Right now we would have very little to say," he said.

There may be a need for more structured funding proposals, city officials say.

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