My Turn: Alaska deserves a better airport for its capital city

Posted: Thursday, September 29, 2005

One way we can improve the perception of Juneau throughout the state and demonstrate our commitment to a better capital city is to vote 'yes' to upgrade our airport.

Some of the most significant criticisms and challenges we continually face are issues of access and the availability and quality of visitor amenities at our airport. These cannot and should not be ignored in our consideration of improvements needed to make Juneau a better capital city.

On Oct. 4, (or before if you vote early or absentee) voters will decide how to spend funds from the extension of the existing 1 percent sales tax. Traditionally, these funds have been used to fund needed infrastructure. One of the choices presented to voters is an opportunity to improve and modernize our airport through a project that is the result of years of planning and input from many community groups.

Our airport has approximately 300,000 fixed-wing passenger emplanements annually. This is forecast to increase over 15 percent in the next 10 years. Unfortunately, most areas of our airport are over 30 years old and in major need of replacement and renovation. The airport was designed without many of the features and spaces now necessary in our post 9/11 world. Our waiting and baggage claim areas are often crowded. Lack of space prevents a second air carrier at the current terminal; a new terminal would allow this possibility. Airport parking can be problematic. Even now there are times when it is difficult to find a parking space. What will it be like in five or 10 years?

This project includes a major expansion and reconstruction of the passenger terminal. Plans call for larger passenger circulation and concession areas, increased space for additional carriers, a larger baggage claim area, improved flow through security screening and improved aircraft parking areas and access roads. Some improvements envisioned include covered walkways so travelers can avoid the rain, sleet, and snow to access the terminal. Plans also eventually call for a multi-story parking structure to accommodate approximately 650 to 700 vehicles.

Even with voter approval, it will probably be 10 years before all the improvements are completed. With the long lead times involved, we simply cannot afford to wait any longer. While this is a large project, less than half will be paid for by Juneau sales tax. The balance will come from federal funds and taxes and revenue bonds repaid through increased tenant rents. Additionally, the airport is self-supporting and no other subsidies or funding will be required to operate the airport on an annual basis.

While the state operates many other airports in Alaska, the Juneau airport will always be our responsibility. We should provide state of the art facilities and amenities to visitors who travel to and from the capital city. The airport is usually the first and the last impression someone receives when visiting our community. Are we perceived as welcoming, convenient, reasonably priced and accessible? Or are we perceived as indifferent, a hassle, expensive and difficult to get to? The airport facilities and services we offer visitors have a tremendous influence on how that question is answered.

Juneau's geography is, unfortunately, both a blessing and a curse. On a beautiful day, there is no place like it on earth. But during bad weather, we often end up spending more time in the airport than we want.

How do we minimize the discomfort and inconvenience of passengers during those times and how do we keep the flow of travelers through our airport both safe and efficient during the other times? When we answer those questions satisfactorily, we will have an airport worthy of our capital city.

On Oct. 4, please vote 'yes' when you are asked if you want to fund airport improvements and enhancements.

• Juneau resident Win Gruening is the chairman of the Alaska Committee.

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