Juneau Assembly prepares funds for airport project

City gives initial OK of up to $8.2 million for terminal expansion

Posted: Tuesday, November 18, 2008

In two years, excessive congestion and 45-minute waits at the baggage claim at Juneau International Airport should be a memory after its next phase of renovation and expansion is complete.

Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

The Juneau Assembly is prepping millions of dollars from sales tax revenue, passenger facility fees and grant money for the project, which airport officials hope to have underway come April.

The Assembly gave its initial approval of up to $8.2 million from city coffers Monday to be borrowed against anticipated sales tax revenue and passenger fees to cover airport renovations and expansions through the 2011 budget year. Final approval is subject to a public hearing and a second consideration at the Assembly's next meeting.

In a separate measure the Assembly approved Monday, the body diverted $1.8 million in passenger fees from that repayment for unexpected costs of runway safety improvements. Assemblyman Jonathan Anderson voiced concern about the ripple effect that would have on the repayment of the $8.2 million.

"To take from tomorrow to pay for today, that's how people get into trouble," he said after the meeting, adding that he will approach the $8.2 million loan to the airport project cautiously, especially in the weakened economy.

Assemblyman Jeff Bush and Mayor Bruce Botelho weren't as worried.

"It just means a longer payback," Bush said.

Airport manager Dave Palmer said the city collects about $1 million in passenger fees each year.

The overall project will add about 12,000 square feet of new space and renovate another 18,000, said Catherine Fritz, airport architect and the project manager. The airport terminal is currently about 82,000 square feet.

Much of that addition will make up for space used for extra screening and security required after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Voters authorized the creation of a 1 percent sales tax through a ballot measure in October 2007 that's expected to generate $10 million for the airport, among other things.

A 2004 report the city commissioned identified airport improvements that would cost more than $60 million to realize, Fritz said, though airport and city policymakers decided that was too much and limited the upcoming improvements to only the most immediate needs in the terminal.

Fritz said there is about $22.8 million in play of state and federal grant money, sales tax revenue and passenger fees for the latest improvements.

One priority is the baggage claim area, which Fritz said turns into a "crowded mess" after multiple planes have landed.

"We've only added 5,000 square feet to ground floor, but I think it'll make a huge difference to the way it feels," Fritz said.

Airport officials plan to select a contractor in February and have work begin in April. The airport will continue operating during construction, which is expected to wrap up in November 2010.

The improved baggage claim area and extra space won't bring the airport up to spec with industry service benchmarks, Fritz said, but will address "pinch points and bottlenecks" and give the airport a more modern look.

About 400,000 passengers go through the airport each year, about twice as many at the time of the airport's last major renovation in 1984. Some parts of the airport date back to 1948.

Eventually, major demolition and rebuilding will be needed for the oldest parts of the airport that cannot be renovated further in a cost effective way, though money has not been secured for that phase, Fritz said.

In other meeting news related to the airport, the Assembly appropriated a $513,000 grant for the airport's ground source heat system. Fritz said the part of the terminal the system will heat is the city's biggest building heated geothermally, and among the state's biggest.

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