Mineta San Jose Int'l Airport to Scale Down Expansion Plans

Forced by a stumbling economy and worried airlines, airport officials will soon unveil a drastically scaled down plan to expand Mineta San Jose International Airport that slashes construction costs by two-thirds and envisions near-completion in five years, not 12.

The new plan is an official acknowledgment that the city cannot afford the original $4.5 billion showplace envisioned as little as nine months ago, complete with a double-deck roadway, central concourse and two sets of people movers to traverse the gates and parking areas. It was all slated to be finished by 2017.

Under the new $1.5 billion plan, which would be largely finished in 2010, each one of those features has been scrapped.

The new plan -- which calls for upgrading Terminal A and keeping the two-story North Concourse favored by city officials -- has already won tentative support from a wide swath of San Jose interest groups briefed in recent days by Aviation Director William Sherry. The new airport blueprint does not affect separate plans, still in the works, to link the airport to light rail or a future BART station.

``In general, I think it's a good plan,'' said San Jose Mayor Ron Gonzales, who is recommending that the city council approve it next week. ``It's cheaper, faster and achieves all our goals. It's well worth the effort to move forward in this manner.''

The airport now has 31 gates, and the new plan would not add any more immediately. But the mayor said the plan provides the flexibility to add more gates when the economy and the demand for flights rebound.

``It recognizes the reality of the airline industry right now, and the reality is we have not been able to regain our customer numbers that were prior to 9/11,'' Gonzales said. ``At the same time, we're proceeding in a way that keeps our options later for further expansion of the terminal.''

New blueprint

At meetings of the airport planning commission and city council next week, Sherry plans to reveal the new airport-expansion blueprint with the following features:

An expanded and upgraded Terminal A, the current home of Southwest, Hawaiian and American Airlines, which will have two ``wings'' for ticketing and baggage check on the ground level, instead of upstairs. Security checkpoints would remain on the second level, and two checkpoints would be added for a total of eight. There would be new concessions on the second floor, as well.

A new two-story concourse, now under construction dubbed the North Concourse, later to be called Terminal B. It will accommodate up to nine airline gates behind a showy sail-shaped exterior. Inside, there will be concessions and airport jetways, so passengers don't have to go on the tarmac to board as they do now in Terminal C.

Terminal C will be torn down, replaced by Terminal B. Over time, Terminal B could be expanded to the south to add more gates, bringing the total at the airport to 40.

Rental cars will be moved closer to travelers in a new 5,525 car garage across from Terminal B, with additional room for storing and servicing rental cars located elsewhere at the airport. The old rental car lot, currently located a shuttle ride away on a large lot, will become a long-term parking lot for 1,550 cars. Part of the funding for the project, however, requires people who rent cars to pay $10.15 per contract, up from the current $5.

Traffic flow around the airport would be improved by having eight lanes, up from four, in heavily trafficked areas, creating a new shortcut to the new Terminal B so passengers don't have to go past Terminal A, and straightening out the tangle of roads near the current Terminal C.

Sherry said virtually everyone he's briefed on the new plan has been supportive.

``While it's not as big and expensive as before,'' Councilman Chuck Reed said, ``it will be good, effective and safe and convenient.''

To accommodate the ambitious aim of finishing the majority of the construction by the end of 2010, Sherry plans to ask the city to approve using a single master contractor to design and build the airport. Traditionally, the city awards separate contracts for designing and constructing various phases of public projects, choosing the lowest bid.

But Sherry said Thursday that there's no way the airport could be built by the end of the decade under that traditional method. So he wants the city to use a new process, approved by voters as Measure D in 2004, that will grant far greater powers to one master contractor.

Measure D was controversial with some officials, including Councilman Reed, a mayoral candidate, who feared that it could be used as a shortcut by politicians seeking to give rich contracts to favored vendors without adequate public review.

But Thursday, Reed said he believes that some new procedures San Jose recently implemented for soliciting proposals from contractors will ensure that the airport project bidding will be transparent and fair.

The previous airport master plan was crafted in 1997 and has been amended a dozen times. That plan envisioned a peak of 17.6 million passengers flying into San Jose by 2010. If San Jose stayed with that plan, it would cost $4.5 billion, and would require airlines to pay average fees of $17.50 per departing passenger, up from a current $4.33.

Airlines balked

Asking airlines to pay $17.50 per passenger became impossible after a series of setbacks including the dotcom bust, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and a resulting drop-off in passengers, as well as a spate of airline bankruptcy filings and spiking airline fuel costs. San Jose's passenger growth has slowed so dramatically, too, that the city now envisions reaching its peak passenger levels only in 2017.

The current plan, which Sherry said the airlines support for the most part, calls for airlines to contribute no more than $9 per departing passenger.

Keeping the master plan affordable for airlines while maintaining San Jose's ability to increase flights is crucial, said Dan Fenton of Team San Jose, which operates the downtown convention center. Fenton said his group backs the new plan.

``We understood the economics of the cost per passenger,'' Fenton said, ``and realized if we got ourselves into the numbers of the plan . . . it would be a potential negative situation with the airlines. That's got to be our primary focus . . . how we grow flights.''

Like the old plan, the new airport plan calls for San Jose to issue bonds that are supported by those fees from the airlines, as well as revenue from parking, concession and other sources. Unlike the old plan, the current proposal would also use the $4.50 that is tacked on to each ticket, by federal law, to help fund the airport expansion rather than reserving it for other capital projects.

San Jose Mercury News

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