At the black-tie opening gala for the new terminal at T.F. Green Airport 10 years ago, promise mixed with champagne and views of the runway in a building this newspaper described as having "gravity-defying energy."
That night, the terminal was aglow, as Gov. Lincoln Almond and his predecessor, Bruce Sundlun, celebrated the culmination of a project they had rammed through over strong opposition and widespread skepticism, with promises that it could double passenger traffic in 10 years.
Underneath the glitz, however, those running the airport couldn't shake nagging doubts -- what if the gamble didn't work? Was it all too much?
The terminal project was Sundlun's baby and, ultimately, his legacy. The old terminal, built in 1961, was decrepit, a dark, moody, outdated building where the baggage claim smelled of the nearby trash area; nearly all agreed it needed replacement.
But there was little support for building a large, modern facility. Rhode Island had just emerged from the savings-and-loan scandal, and cost overruns on the Jamestown-Verrazzano Bridge had made the public mistrustful of large government projects. The airline industry was losing money and retrenching, and carriers openly doubted that Rhode Island had the demand to support such a large facility.
In 1988, voters had approved a $28.5-million bond to build a new terminal, money that would have been enough for a small terminal. Sundlun wanted more. " 'It's not going to work,' I said. 'We've got to have a two-story terminal.' That shook everybody up," Sundlun recalled last week. "They thought what we had was perfectly good. I knew the terminal we had was inadequate. I knew that air travel was increasing, and if we had a new terminal, we could tap into that."
Shortly after taking office in 1991, he threw out the existing plan and replaced it with designs for a two-story, 15-gate, 270,000-square-foot glass behemoth that would eventually cost $210 million, drawing anger from foes who thought Sundlun's plan was overly grand and his approach too unilateral.
Leading the opposition was former West Warwick Mayor and Sundlun gubernatorial opponent J. Michael Levesque, who in 1992, called the project a "boondoggle," and led protests outside the airport drawing attention to an endeavor he thought was doomed. Former Woonsocket Rep. Gerald Martineau said that he and many of his colleagues in the General Assembly thought that Sundlun had "lost it" and tried to halt the project.
Sundlun pushed his terminal through anyway, and as 10 years of crowds can attest, the doubters were wrong. The projections that the 2.4-million passenger load could double in 10 years turned out to be underestimations -- it took just a year to clear 4 million. Last year, the airport served close to 5.7 million passengers, and its operating revenue was $47 million. In 1996, half of the regional airport's 82 daily departures were propeller planes, and the rest small jets. Today, nearly all of the 108 departures are larger jets.
The problem, if anything, is that T.F. Green was too much of a success, too soon, creating long lines and more traffic than anticipated -- if that can be called a problem.
Today, Levesque laughs at his massive misjudgment.
"Oh boy, was I ever wrong on that - and let me tell you, Governor Sundlun doesn't let me forget it. I had to eat a little crow on that," Levesque said last week. "I've been wrong before -- but this one was a whopper."
In 1997, when the terminal was named for Sundlun to honor his foresight, Martineau also did an about face. "I wish to publicly acknowledge that I have never been so wrong on any issue in the 11 years that I have served in the Rhode Island General Assembly," he wrote in a letter to the editor.
Passenger totals at T.F. Green Airport in Warwick trailed off 1.6 percent last month, the fourth consecutive monthly drop, according to a report from the Rhode Island Airport Corporation.
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