MSP runway project final leg of $3B improvement planby Dan Olson, Minnesota Public Radio
Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn. — State officials opted 13 years ago to keep Minneapolis-St. Paul International airport at its current location rather build a new one.
The whole process caused a storm of controversy and the decision not to build a new airport led to spending more than $3 billion to improve and expand the existing airport. That expansion is nearly done, and the next one is being planned.
The final MSP improvement project is a $23 million rebuild of the middle of the airport's north runway.
Standing on the side of the runway, aircraft taxi to and from the rebuilt Lindbergh terminal is less than half a mile away.
Dozens of dump trucks, lined up nose to tail, and are being filled with black dirt while others carry in sand.
A runway is no different from highways, water-logged dirt freezes and thaws and cracks them.
Metropolitan Airports Commission project manager Allen Dye said replacing the soil with sand is better.
"The water will drain completely out of it, you want to get that freeze thaw and get that movement that you get in the pavement," Dye said.
The new runway section, Dye said, should last 50 years. But will MSP be around that long or will there be a need for a bigger airport at a different site?
There doesn't appear to be a simple answer at the moment.
Metropolitan Airports Commission deputy executive director for planning and environment Dennis Probst said there's plenty of capacity for nearly a decade. That's due to the $3.2 billion expansion and improvement of MSP.
It's also due to the recession.
The number of airplanes landing and taking off at MSP is down to 1994 levels. Probst and others predict when the recession ends, air travel will perk up.
He said that 20 years from now, by 2030, there could be more than 60 million passengers a year using MSP.
"Which would be a doubling of the current use of this facility," Probst said. "So the pressure that's going to be on MSP going forward is going to be how we deal with passengers and that interface of how people get to the airport, get to their aircraft and have a great experience in the process."
Airports and airline companies around the world are hurting because of the recession.
The MAC's deputy executive director for finance and administration, Steve Busch, said the airport's big revenue source, parking, is down as are nearly all other revenue streams.
"It's a significant hit on our revenue, but it's starting to moderate and slow down," Busch said.
Busch said the downturn does not threaten the MAC's or the airport's financial survival.
In fact, it's possible to argue that keeping the existing airport and spending $3.2 billion to improve it, rather than building a new one at perhaps something approaching twice the cost, was a smart move.
There's a smaller debt to pay off, and a smaller airport may not be at a competitive disadvantage.
That's certainly true for the moment with greatly reduced numbers of flights.
Even when air travel recovers and there are many more planes in the air, aviation experts say better technology will allow airplanes to land closer together.
That may help smaller hub airports like MSP, only 3,400 acres in size and only 4 runways, compete with big airports like Denver at 33,000 acres in size and six runways.
Still, the 2030 deadline looms, when MSP may be at capacity.
Dan Boivin, a private-practice attorney appointed as the city of Minneapolis member to the Metropolitan Airports Commission wonders what happens then.
"I think we are very well positioned for right now, but we need to start planning again now for twenty five years from now," Boivin said.
Does that mean starting the long process of selecting a site and buying land for a new airport?
Bert McKasy, also an attorney, and a Commission member appointed by the Pawlenty administration doesn't know the answer.
McKasy doubts, however, there's room at the existing airport for another runway.
"My impression is we're getting very close to being landlocked there as to what we can do," McKasy said.
A snapshot of what we got for the $3.2 billion MSP rebuild includes greatly-expanded parking and terminal capacity, runway improvements, and the biggest ticket item, the new 8,000-foot long north-south runway, which makes a lot of additional flights possible.
The other big expense, approaching $500 million, is the cost of treating hundreds of homes around the airport to help residents cope with aircraft noise.
The wish list for the next batch of improvements is already being prepared. However, the list does not include a new runway, but calls for more terminal and parking upgrades.
- Morning Edition, 08/28/2009, 7:25 a.m.