That cramped, incredibly inefficient lump of granite opened 15 years ago and was inadequate almost immediately. The claustrophobic ticketing area was a horror long before post-Sept. 11 security increased the clutter and the lines. It was planned when people thought San Jose would need a moderate-sized regional airport -- an idea that seemed ridiculous by the mid-1990s.
But now, because airline ridership isn't increasing as fast as expected, there's pressure to go back to thinking smaller. The airport's long-range plan for one large terminal to replace today's fragmented facility has come under fire because it's ambitious and costly. Mercury News stories have pointed out that the funding for the whole project is not yet in place, and airlines are even balking at the cost of the North Concourse, which already is under construction.
Does that mean it's time to change course again?
No. It's just the timing that needs to be tweaked.
The plan for a single terminal still makes sense. Ridership growth has slowed, but it's still growth. The large airport will be needed someday. New phases won't -- and shouldn't -- be started until the need is clear and the financing in order, but that doesn't alter the wisdom of building toward a coherent design.
Nor does it change the need for distinctive architecture. Silicon Valley deserves more than the airport equivalent of a tilt-up. Airport officials say an interesting design will add 3 percent to 4 percent to the total building cost of around $289 million. That doesn't sound extravagant.
The airport doesn't draw on city tax dollars. It's built and operated from airline fees, parking revenue and other sources, including some federal grants. The involvement of the airlines, in particular, provides a good reality check. Airport officials can't just push ahead with expansion if its business partners don't want more space.
The North Concourse has become controversial in part because it was an exception to that rule, says Frank Kirkbride, the acting aviation director. The nine new gates will be welcome, but the real need for this concourse is to house baggage-screening equipment and other post-Sept. 11 national security features that now are makeshift and labor-intensive at the old terminals.
This also complicates negotiations over how much each airline pays toward the project, since the baggage facility is for all airlines, but some of the space is just for users of the new gates.
Nobody's saying the financing is a problem, however. But the bonds sold to finance the concourse are highly rated. The airport generally gets good marks for financial management.
A lot of plans made during the dot-com bubble look crazy today. A well-designed, easily accessible airport for Silicon Valley isn't one of them. City officials need to be up front about the timing, but there's no reason to change the goal.