Saturday, September 16, 2017

Pittsburgh International Airport (KPIT) $1.1B overhaul: Prematurely cleared for takeoff

More than $900 million was borrowed to build the current Pittsburgh International Airport, which opened 25 years ago, to US Airways' hub specifications. That turned out to be a profound mistake when US Airways' declining fortunes led it to close its Pittsburgh hub in 2004, taking 500 daily flights and 10,000 jobs with it and leaving much of the airport unused.

Now, the Allegheny County Airport Authority insists on spending $1.1 billion on a massive overhaul that includes building a new landside terminal, renovating the existing airside terminal, eliminating the existing terminals' connecting tram, redeveloping or demolishing (for about $20 million) the existing landside terminal, and replacing the baggage-handling systems.

After a quarter-century, the airport no doubt needs work. The authority wants to eliminate the growing maintenance costs and headaches of the tram and existing baggage systems, and to “align the facility with the needs of a modern passenger experience.” But is a $1.1 billion overhaul really necessary for an airport ranked this summer by readers of Travel + Leisure magazine as the nation's sixth best?

“The plan does not include the local use of tax dollars,” the authority says, referring to revenue collected by the county and its municipalities — phrasing that leaves ample room for state and federal tax dollars. Actually, bonds are to pay most of the cost — still more borrowing, despite 25 percent of the current airport's construction debt remaining to repay as of next year.

Curiously, a breakdown showing bonds paying for 51 percent of the cost — $550 million-plus in new borrowing — disappeared from the project's website the day it was announced. Still, authority CEO Christina Cassotis maintains “the airlines are paying for this” — and uses that to justify the utter lack of public input before the authority voted for the project.

Indeed, one especially troubling aspect is this plan's presentation to the public as pretty much a done deal, albeit one sketchy on details — and by an unelected authority board with no direct voter or taxpayer accountability. The authority claims three years' work with airlines on the plan. But it was announced shortly after Amazon made known its search for a second headquarters city, to which Ms. Cassotis alluded. Taxpayers thus should question whether this project is more about an “artificial sweetener” for Amazon now than it is about air travelers' actual future needs.

All this is more than enough to give pause. Yet the authority's charging ahead, intending groundbreaking in 2019 and completion in 2023. And though it claims the budget “includes price escalations and contingencies,” it's rare that any project of such scope finishes on time and on budget. Thus, that $1.1 billion is just an initial estimate, one sure to rise.

Given Pittsburgh International's importance for Western Pennsylvania's economy and quality of life, rushing a new overhaul poses too great a risk of botching this one as badly as the last one. The airport's future should be thoroughly debated, in public and by the public, before any new overhaul goes forward.

To do otherwise prematurely clears this $1.1 billion plan for takeoff. 

Original article can be found here ➤

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