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Terminal work plows ahead while flier forecast declines

Originally published: 6/18/09

Visitors to Sacramento International Airport will be offered a perk of sorts this week -- earplugs to muffle banging of the massive pile drivers working on the airport's $1 billion expansion project.

There are not likely to be as many takers as once predicted, though.

Passenger numbers are dropping notably this year amid a global economic slump that has rocked the air travel industry. The summer travel season at Sacramento airport is expected to be the lightest in seven years.

Airport officials say that's not entirely bad news for construction crews who must manage a construction zone amid daily comings and goings of thousands of fliers and planes.

The year-old expansion project includes a four-story central terminal that will replace the aging Terminal B complex, as well as an elevated people-mover tram and a new jet gateway building.

"A year ago, we were bursting at the seams," airport official Amanda Thomas said of passenger traffic. "In a sense, this gives us breathing room."

Long term, however, the trend is troublesome.

It's already caused revenue to drop, sending airport planners scrambling for ways to keep the expansion on schedule, and forcing reductions in the project's scope and costs.

Officials this year dropped plans to build a hotel atop the new terminal. They also postponed construction of a multi-level garage until sometime after 2016.

The airport's new terminal is scheduled to be finished in late 2011.

Based on years of solid passenger growth, officials had calculated they would need extra space soon after the new terminal opened.

However, new projections indicate ridership will drop 13 percent this year, and could drop slightly again next year.

The numbers are in a just-released analysis conducted for the county by Jacobs Consultancy, an Ohio-based aviation management company.

Consultants estimate it could take 10 years for passenger levels to return to where they were in 2007.

Airport officials this week said the new projections don't change the basic need at the airport for modern facilities and for more passenger capacity in future years.

The 40-year-old Terminal B complex is out of date and needs to be replaced, airport executive Hardy Acree said.

"It is not just an expansion, it's to replace a facility that outlived its useful life, that is no longer usable," Acree said.

The new terminal is designed to meet new security demands since the September 2001 terrorist attacks, airport officials said.

Terminal A also will receive security upgrades.

Acree said the latest, more modest growth projections are conservative and probably will be different next year.

"We think things will start turning around," Acree said. "We'll be back on the growth curve and in the position to accommodate that growth."

The project appears to have gotten a boost in recent weeks with the thawing of national credit markets for airport expansion projects.

Airport officials won a go-ahead Tuesday from the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors to go to the bond market next month in hopes of selling up to $550 million in bonds to finance the next stages of the expansion project.

A sizable portion of the money to pay for those bonds was to have come from "passenger facility charges" of $4.50 per ticket.

But, with fewer ticket-buying passengers, more of the financing burden will fall on airlines, officials said.

Airline executives have complained about those costs, saying the airport's expansion plans are bigger than they need to be.

"The costs are exceeding what we already thought were unreasonable," said Marilee McInnis, spokeswoman for Southwest Airlines, the major carrier at Sacramento airport.

Airport officials nationally say they are cheered to see credit markets opening up.

"Although traffic may be down now, there is still a critical need for airports to invest in infrastructure projects," Airports Council International-North America President Greg Principato said this week. "Unless airports plan now, it will be difficult to prevent passenger delays when traffic returns."

Call The Bee's Tony Bizjak, (916) 321-1059.