The Little Rock Municipal Airport Commission on Tuesday approved spending $15 million on the existing passenger terminal while devoting $5 million to its potential replacement at the state's largest airport.
The $15 million set aside for the 34-year-old terminal at Little Rock National Airport, Adams Field, includes $10 million for a new in-line baggage system to handle more checked bags and $5 million for other terminal improvements.
The commission set aside $5 million to study the feasibility of building a new termi- nal and associated preliminary work.
Spending on both the existing and the proposed terminal makes sense, most commission members said, since the in-line baggage system will be portable and could be incorporated into a new terminal.
"It may be eight to 10 years" before a new terminal is built, commission Chairman Gene Fortson said. "We need to do everything we can to make this place the best we can for the flying public between now and then." But commission member Dr. Carl Johnson, who abstained from the vote, said spending on the existing terminal undercuts the arguments to replace it.
"All of this is bad timing," Johnson said. "It's perception." Voters "didn't want taxes for a county jail," he added, referring to Pulaski County voters' rejection last week of a sales tax aimed at creating more jail space. "If this passes, we sign our own death warrant for a new terminal," he said.
Airport officials have spent much of the past year discussing the pros and cons of building a new terminal or renovating the existing one, which was built to handle 1 million passengers but now handles more than twice that number. The design of the terminal also didn't anticipate the state of airline traffic three decades after it was built: Passenger and baggage screening, online and kiosk ticketing, and placing most concessions beyond security gates.
Furthermore, its 212,000 square feet is 30,000 square feet short of industry standards for the 2.6 million passengers that came through the terminal last year. Based on travel projections, the terminal could need another 100,000 square feet in a few years, consultants for the airport have said.
Several times a week, the lines from the passenger security screening area on the terminal's second level back down the escalator into the baggage claim area. While the lines often don't last long, the problem is exacerbated during the holidays or whenever a big event comes to town, officials said.
Three explosives detectors for checked luggage crowd the ticket lobby, which makes moving through it difficult during the busiest travel times, and a fourth machine is on the way. In the meantime, new restrictions on what people can carry aboard an aircraft are increasing the number of bags people check.
"It puts a strain on a system that is already close to capacity," said Ron Mathieu, deputy executive director at Little Rock National. "People will be flying out of here without their bags" if nothing is done.
In April, airport officials initially believed that renovating the terminal was the most practical and cost-effective option, with an estimated price tag of $115 million. But the more airport officials examined that option, the more costs they found. They concluded that a renovated terminal might cost as much as a new terminal.
For instance, renovating the terminal while it remained in use would slow contractors, eating up any savings by rising material costs. Consultants estimated in May that it would take six years to renovate the terminal compared with four years to build a new one.
By July, officials tentatively decided on a new terminal that could cost as much as $250 million. A preliminary design they produced shows a terminal with 18 to 20 gates, up from the dozen Little Rock National has now.
The new terminal concourse would feature an eight-bay passenger screening area, twice as big as the one now, and a moving sidewalk, a feature at many airports.
The new spending plan to tackle both the existing and proposed terminals came together after the Federal Aviation Administration notified airport officials that they had more money to spend from passenger facility charges - the proceeds of a $4.50 fee added to the price of every ticket of a boarding passenger. Working with the FAA and the airlines, the airport decides how to spend the money, which totals between $5 million and $6 million annually.
Of the $15 million for the existing terminal the commission approved Tuesday, about $5 million comes from three separate projects already in the works, part of millions of dollars the commission has spent to improve and upgrade the terminal over the past few years.
One project approved Tuesday was contained in a $6.4 million terminal renovation project, which includes the installation of a new ceiling and lighting system, partial replacement of walls and floors, and installation of a fire suppression system.
Items worth $2.18 million in that project were shifted to the in-line baggage system. Those items included modifying the airline baggage makeup areas to accommodate explosives detectors and replacing the ticket counters and associated architectural modifications.
Two other projects also were shifted into the overall in-line baggage project.
The airport already was planning to spend $1.5 million to relocate its communication center because of increased space requirements for security, communications and dispatch functions, leaving more space in the passenger screening area.
Airport officials already had set aside another $1.3 million to reconstruct the prescreening public area on the second level and add two more screening bays to the four in place.Commission member Jimmy Moses, who has led the effort to explore the possibility of a new terminal, said he shares Johnson's frustration with spending on such projects.
"The reality is this is a tricky process," he said, but added that the projects underscore "how outmoded this facility is." The $5 million set aside to study the feasibility of a new terminal will pay for an in-depth analysis of how the airport could meet future demand and regulatory requirements. The study will not rule out renovating the existing terminal.
The analysis also would include recommendations on how the airport might pay for either option and preliminary designs.
The two proposals represent "a bridge to the new terminal" that "will serve our customers today," Mathieu said.
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