Oct. 25--Milwaukee County officials said Monday they will more closely track construction costs at Mitchell International Airport, where the long-awaited Concourse C expansion is fast approaching the $60 million mark, far more than original estimates.
Business is booming at county-owned Mitchell, providing a deep well of cash for remodeling and security improvements funded primarily through passenger fees of $3 per ticket.
No tax money is dedicated for airport operations or capital projects. Travelers pay most of the tab for the concourse work; airlines pay the rest. The county fronts cash to the airport and issues bonds for its capital improvements.
However, county Budget Director Stephen Agostini has raised concerns about the growing expense of the project and has challenged the airport to be cautious and not get carried away amid record-setting passenger counts of the last two years.
The airport has paid penalties on previous projects when borrowed funds were not expended in a timely way, Agostini said Monday after the County Board's Finance Committee approved spending $23.9 million for eight new gates and a dramatically refurbished Concourse C.
The project, replacing a now 30-year-old concourse, was proposed in 2000 by then-County Executive F. Thomas Ament and in 2001 carried an estimated price tag of $17 million. The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks derailed the project for a time.
The cost has more than tripled since then as the project grew more ambitious, construction prices rose, and activity picked up at Mitchell, Airport Director C. Barry Bateman said.
During this year alone, the airport reported a $4.3 million increase in estimated costs.
But Bateman said that airport officials have conservatively planned ongoing upgrades on all three concourses at Mitchell.
"We have not overleveraged ourselves," Bateman said. "These are legitimate questions, though, and I have no problem providing spending reports."
The first phase of the C Concourse makeover will be unveiled by Thanksgiving, with completion scheduled for spring next year, Bateman said. The new gates should open by spring 2007.
The remade C Concourse will be roomier and better lighted, Bateman said. Airport officials said on Sept. 30 that the concourse's outer walls have been reconstructed, and the terrazzo floor design by Miami artist Carlos Alves was being poured.
Bateman said the airlines wanted more amenities added as the project went along.
He said that, following a national trend, the airport -- rather than individual airlines -- will control certain gates. That allows Mitchell more flexibility but means the airport -- through the ticket surcharge -- is paying for seating and jet ways and other costs traditionally borne directly by the airlines, Bateman said.
Bateman said he foresaw no boost in the $3 fee at this time. Many airports charge $4.50 per ticket, he said.
A separate renovation project, of the Concourse D stem, began in October. Previously, the security checkpoint on that concourse was widened, and more security lanes on Concourse E are being added.
The Finance Committee also approved $9.3 million for Concourse E remodeling in 2006.
Passenger traffic at Mitchell is up 10 percent this year over 2004, with surging use recorded this summer. Last year, the airport reported 6.6 million passengers, up 8.45 percent over 2003.
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