Lambert Airport opened its new runway Thursday, even as critics of the $1.1 billion project called it a waste of money that destroyed a community.
The St. Louis airport's first new runway in half a century was designed to reduce weather delays and allow the airport to manage increasing passenger demand, city and airport leaders said at a dedication ceremony for the project that was more than 15 years in the making.
"Critical to continuing the region's economic momentum is an airport that is efficient, so the airlines can serve our growing demand for air service," St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay said.
Hundreds of people invited to the ceremony watched as the mayor, federal aviation officials and U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan arrived on a small passenger jet to mark the first landing on the runway.
Many of those who dedicated runway 11-29 said it would give the city an advantage and attract airlines and business, and hopefully return St. Louis to the air-travel hub it once was.
But opponents of the expansion say the airport's traffic remains a third less than it was before the 2001 terrorist attacks. One entire concourse is barely operating. In a 2004 forecast, the Federal Aviation Administration predicted that Lambert's traffic would not reach pre-2001 levels until after 2020.
The expansion meant the loss of more than 2,000 homes, businesses, churches and schools near the airport, mostly in the St. Louis suburb of Bridgeton. Residents who opposed the expansion, including some who lost their homes, gathered Thursday not far from the celebration for the new runway.
"It amounted to an excessive waste of resources and the destruction of a community," said Sara Barwinski, who led one of three groups opposed to the project. Her family had to leave their Bridgeton home in 2003.
Opponents of the runway celebrated the end of their struggle with "White Elephant" cake, their joking nickname for the runway's usefulness.
Talk of a new runway began in 1989. Local unions for air traffic controllers and pilots were against plans to build the new runway and asked for alternatives in the late 1990s.
Trans World Airlines was still in business then, and Lambert was its primary hub. AMR Corp.'s American Airlines purchased TWA out of bankruptcy in 2001.
The terrorist attacks badly damaged the airline industry. American eventually was forced to cut half its St. Louis flights. But by then, the runway project was well under way.
Airlines will begin paying their 23 percent share of the runway's costs in July. It's still unclear how much of that cost airlines will pass on to passengers.
The runway eliminates a problem that caused many delays, said airport director Kevin Dolliole.
The new runway allows for simultaneous arrivals in more than 99 percent of weather conditions, he said.
"Previously, our two major parallel runways were too close together to allow simultaneous aircraft arrivals in inclement weather," Dolliole said.
After a decade of passenger traffic decline at Lambert, 2005 marked the first increase - 10 percent - to 7.5 million. About 13 million passengers traveled through Lambert in 1995.
The FAA predicted two years ago, after new runway construction had began, that by 2020 Lambert would slip from being the 17th ranked airport in the country to 30th, in terms of service.
Chris Blum, an FAA regional spokesman, said he expects the next forecast for Lambert to be more optimistic.
"You know the saying 'If you build it, they will come,'" Blum said. "Now that St. Louis has the capability, it becomes a much more attractive option for airlines to do business here."
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