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Sacramento Airport expansion under way

Originally published: 12/17/08

The first in an occasional look at Sacramento International Airport's $1.3 billion makeover, one of the biggest public works projects in county history.

Holiday travelers will notice something new this year at Sacramento International Airport -- a major construction zone.

Work barriers are up. Excavators are rumbling. And a gaping 16-foot-deep crater marks the foundation for a new four-story terminal and hotel.

While inconveniences are mild now, it raises a question: When the billion-dollar transformation is done in five years, will the airport lose its long-held reputation as easy-in, easy-out?

The answer literally is up in the air.

An automated tram system -- called a people mover -- will whisk passengers back and forth at about 20 miles per hour on a skyway over the north airfield between the new terminal and a separate jet gateway building.

The airport recently signed a $30 million deal with Bombardier of Canada, a company that has provided people movers for 17 airports, including San Francisco International and the acclaimed new terminal in Beijing, China.

Airport officials say trams will turn a several-minute walk into a 45-second glide -- with panoramic views -- keeping the expanded airport convenient for Sacramento fliers.

"It's an easy way to transport a lot of people," consultant Brent Kelley of Corgan Associates said. "It's faster than a moving sidewalk."

It represents both a physical and psychological break from what Sacramentans are used to at their airport.

Today fliers do their ticketing, baggage pickup and catch planes all in a single building, either Terminal A or Terminal B. That will no longer be the case when the new terminal replaces antiquated Terminal B.

Ticketing and baggage will be handled in the new four-story central terminal. But the federal security checkpoint and jet gates will be housed 300 yards away in a "remote concourse" building.

For the foreseeable future, Terminal A will remain a self-contained full-service terminal. Someday, however, it too might be served by a people mover, county representatives say. Its ticketing and baggage claim would be moved to the central terminal.

That arrangement would eliminate the traffic congestion problem in front of Terminal A and allow it to add gates, officials said.

Holiday fliers at Sacramento airport offered a mix of opinions last week about the mover, some lauding the convenience, others complaining it's another step between them and their plane.

"At our age, we like anything that can move us without walking," said Rita Raney, a retiree who flew to Sacramento from Wichita, Kan., and enjoys airport people movers. "You usually are tired. You have your hands full."

Some fliers, however, question whether midsized Sacramento needs a big-ticket tram.

"It makes us modern, but could it be overkill?" asked Gregory Ford of Antelope.

Airlines, which pay a percentage of expansion costs, lobbied for a more modest plan.

"They want a Bentley, and we can afford a Chevrolet," Southwest Airlines executive Ron Ricks complained this spring.

Airport director Hardy Acree counters that the $1.3 billion expansion is the right size to handle growth projected for the coming decades, and the people mover is part of a design that gives the airport flexibility to grow more later.

Economic concerns, however, have mounted this year as airlines cut flights amid a historic recession.

Airport officials are scheduled to go to market in two months in hopes of selling up to $500 million in bonds for the project.

Project funding does not involve the county general fund. It's paid by fees on airlines, passengers, parking and companies doing business at the airport.

Airport officials are saying little about the upcoming bond sale. In an e-mail to The Bee, Acree wrote:

"The financial markets remain in flux and too volatile to predict at this point. We will go through our normal process."

Acree has said the airport can save costs by postponing building a second garage.

The people mover idea came about as a solution to a design problem, consultant Kelley said.

Space is limited at the airport, and planners needed to find a way to build new facilities while keeping terminals A and B fully functioning, he said.

To do it, "we made the jump from one long building with long walks to two buildings," Kelley said.

That left the question of how to get fliers from one building to the other.

Designers at first talked about building a tunnel with a rolling sidewalk under the north airfield. But that would be hard to maintain because of the high groundwater table, and traveling underground adds stress for travelers, Kelley said.

After visiting airports around the country, Sacramento officials say they settled on an overhead people mover, with room for expansion.

Kelley said the people mover cost pencils out to no more than if the design were a single building, because it allows for a more efficient construction process.

To get to the people mover, fliers will ride an escalator up one flight in the new terminal to the third level. An alternating pair of automated trams will launch every 80 seconds from the facility's third level, above a double-deck road.

Each hour, the two-tram system would carry up to 3,000 passengers in each direction on an S-curve guideway that alights at the center of the concourse building.

There, passengers will go through security and head either right or left to their gates.

"The farthest walk we'll have is 600 feet," Kelley said. "That's about the walk distance in Terminal A."

VIDEO: See the people mover in action.

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