Sacramento International Airport, increasingly crowded and in need of new facilities, is planning a historic leap over Interstate 5 to build a massive new parking lot.
Officials say the 13,800-space lot and a new car rental complex will kick-start a $1 billion airport expansion to keep up with Sacramento growth and compete with Bay Area airports for Northern California fliers.
"We looked at our options and decided we needed to go south of I-5," said Rob Leonard, assistant director of Sacramento County airports. "It makes sense."
Leonard said the airport will lose a significant amount of parking in its core area as early as next year when new terminal construction begins.
Leapfrogging the freeway, he said, will compensate for those losses and help position the airport for an expected 40 percent growth to 14 million passengers annually by 2020.
The county, which operates the airport, owns the 209-acre site and most of the adjoining land south of the airport between I-5 and the Sacramento River.
Shuttle buses would ferry people over the freeway to terminals, and officials say they expect the ride to take only marginally longer than shuttles serving current closer-in lots.
Over the long run, airport officials envision a second airport hotel on the south side of the freeway, as well as offices and other commercial ventures.
Building the parking lots may not be automatic or easy.
Because the airport is in the environmentally sensitive Natomas basin, the county must put together a plan -- requiring federal and state regulatory approval -- to address potential environmental effects of the project.
Home to nearly two dozen endangered species, the area is a longtime battleground among environmentalists, regulators and developers.
State regulators this week warned that the environmental review process could take more time than airport officials plan.
For their part, airport officials say they hope to get started on the parking lot this year so they can move full speed next year on the centerpiece of their new master plan -- a three-story, glass-walled central terminal, which they hope to open in 2011.
The terminal will replace the outdated 40-year-old Terminal B complex, which will be razed.
Leonard said airport planners expect to have to eliminate part of the hourly and daily lots for Terminal B, as many as 3,000 parking spaces, for construction.
Airport users still will be able to use the multistory parking garage next to Terminal A, and other existing surface parking lots on-site, he said.
Also planned as part of the multiyear expansion are a second parking garage, a high-rise hotel attached to the new terminal, a tram to take passengers to a new concourse, and eventually a third runway.
Terminal A will continue to function as a separate terminal. Long term, however, all airport ticketing and baggage service will be handled in the new central terminal. Terminal A would become a satellite boarding area linked to the main terminal by a tram.
Airport officials have penciled in a site for a light-rail train station at the new terminal to help ease the airport parking crunch.
However, Sacramento Regional Transit officials say it doesn't appear they will be able to extend light rail to the airport until sometime after 2020.
The plan to leapfrog the freeway has prompted a number of environmental concerns.
State environmental officials say they will permit the expansion after the airport provides an acceptable habitat conservation plan for any affected endangered species in the Natomas basin.
"We are having discussions with them on how to address concerns in the basin," said state Fish and Game environmental scientist Jenny Marr. "We hope to work with them to satisfy the airport's needs and to protect species."
In a recently released draft environmental impact report, airport officials propose setting aside an equal amount of land nearby to be conserved permanently as open space and wildlife habitat.
Some environmentalists and biologists familiar with the Natomas basin, however, say they are not sure the county can truly compensate for the land use south of the freeway.
Biologist Jim Estep, who monitors Swainson's hawks, said even though open-space land must be set aside for every new development, he isn't sure wildlife will survive long term in the basin if development continues.
Area residents expressed concerns about additional traffic.
Kevin McRae of the Garden Highway homeowners group said the Garden Highway, a thin road perched atop a levee south of I-5, is not suitable for heavier traffic the expansion might cause. "It is already dangerous," he said.
Airport officials, however, say the main access to the planned new site would be from Airport Boulevard at I-5.
The airport's 20-year master plan for expansion is expected to be financed by fees paid by airport users, including passengers and airlines, officials said.
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