Board signs off on new terminal at Wichita Mid-Continent Airport

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Sept. 21--The Wichita Airport Advisory Board recommended Monday that the City Council move forward with a plan to build a $160 million terminal building at Wichita Mid-Continent Airport.

The board voted 7-2 in favor of the new terminal despite a recommendation from city finance staff that the project be postponed.

"I'm very much in favor of the... project," advisory board member Thom Rosenberg said. "We need that to continue to grow" as a city.

The terminal is now in the hands of the City Council, which serves as the Wichita Airport Authority. It will discuss it during an Oct. 5 workshop.

The city's finance department recommended postponing construction, saying the original forecasts of passenger growth weren't conservative enough.

However, a report from Chicago-based consulting firm LeighFisher concluded that the project should move forward.

"Postponing the construction of the terminal facility will increase costs, withhold benefits from the local economy and strand certain investments already made at the airport and the FAA," according to the LeighFisher report, which was presented to the board Monday.

City Manager Robert Layton sided with the LeighFisher report.

"I'm paid to be somewhat cautious and a little bit conservative," he said. But "I think it's a wise investment to move forward on the terminal."

The project counts on growing passenger traffic. And without continuation of the Kansas Affordable Airfares Program -- which provides $5 million a year in revenue guarantees for airlines and is scheduled to expire in 2011 -- the number of passengers using the airport will fall, according to the city report.

That report concluded that AirTran and Frontier, which receive the guarantees, could leave the market if the Legislature doesn't extend the Affordable Airfares Program.

In its report, LeighFisher said it considered passenger forecasts, historical growth trends in Wichita traffic and in aviation, and independent forecasts by the Federal Aviation Administration.

It also took into account continuation of the Affordable Airfares Program and re-examined construction cost estimates and the cost to renovate the existing terminal building.

"Our conclusion is we're still confident in the baseline projections," said William Flock, associate director of LeighFisher. "We think they're reasonable."

Construction costs and bond rates could increase and the cost to maintain the existing terminal will be fairly significant, he said.

In addition, the FAA has already committed grants to the project.

The current terminal is aging and in need of major repairs. For example, new Homeland Security requirements have created a need for more behind-the-scenes baggage inspection areas. Electrical, heating and cooling, and other infrastructure needs to be replaced.

The current building also lacks a spacious greeting area for arriving travelers.

Renovating the existing 50-year-old terminal would cost about $150 million, nearly as much as building a new one.

Board member Dave Murfin said he'd like to wait to see what will happen with the Legislature before moving forward.

Airport director Victor White suggested that bids for the terminal's construction could go out while waiting on the Legislature to act.

The terminal would be paid with passenger facility charges, airport revenue from airlines, concessions and other income and grants. The airport would also pay for it with bond money paid back from five to 30 years.

If the City Council approves the project, construction would take 36 months after awarding of the bid. The terminal would open in 2014.

Reach Molly McMillin at 316-269-6708 or mmcmillin@wichitaeagle.com.

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