Busy skies spur plans for BWI

Officials say growth creates urgent need for gates, parking

Study to consider runway

Quick start sought for projects expected to cost $2 billion

January 22, 2000|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN STAFF

After six years of record-setting growth, Baltimore-Washington International Airport has outgrown itself, and it could soon need almost $2 billion worth of new facilities for airplanes, passengers and cars.

In the last few months, airport officials have ordered fast-track studies to consider building new parking lots, a new passenger terminal and perhaps a new runway -- essentially a whole new airport somehow squeezed into or superimposed over the old one.

The new construction is early in the planning stages, so airport officials can't say exactly what BWI needs, when it will need it or how much it will cost.

But they are bracing for extensive development over the next five to 10 years and hope to expedite at least three projects that would cost a combined $1.7 billion at today's prices.

Parking congestion has reached a "crisis" level, according to BWI Executive Director David L. Blackshear. And at least four airlines have asked for new terminal space, while the airport has none to give them, he said.

"We've got a substantial spike in activity, we think it's going to continue, and we've got to do something to address it -- right now," Blackshear said.

"To put our heads in the sand and pretend it's not going to happen would be just foolish," he added. "We're dead in the water if we sit here and take a conservative approach."

Expansion and construction have been nearly continuous at BWI since the state of Maryland bought the former Friendship Airport from Baltimore City 20 years ago. The state doubled the size of the airport immediately and has added piers and gates and lengthened or improved runways since then.

But while past development projects mostly involved expanding the old airport and its facilities, airport officials say a more drastic approach could be needed.

The passenger terminal, for instance, might not stretch any farther.

The Maryland Aviation Administration has ordered a study to see if gates can be added to both ends of the terminal, but even as the study proceeds, they are exploring construction of another passenger terminal somewhere else on the airport grounds.

The airport has 76 loading gates and needs at least four more immediately, Blackshear said. And he thinks BWI will need as many as 50 new gates over the next 20 years -- improvements he expects would cost $500 million.

And with more and more commercial jets using the airport's primary runway, that too might no longer be sufficient.

A task force of state and federal officials began meeting last month to consider construction of a second major runway.

Runway construction is among the most expensive and complicated projects an airport can undertake. It requires enough ground space and air space for planes to take off, land and taxi, but it also changes the air-traffic patterns and alters an airport's noise pollution reach. The expected cost of a major runway is $1 billion or more.

"A lot of these projects we've known we wanted to do at some point, but this goes beyond where we've ever looked before," said Michael West, BWI's associate administrator for planning and engineering.

"We can see the point, looking ahead, where our passenger traffic is going to double."

State officials have long expected that new development projects would be needed at BWI by 2020, and have predicted that $4 billion will be needed to accomplish them.

But most no longer think they can wait that long. Airport planners say they will request money for new gate construction next year, circumventing the normal six-year planning process for transportation projects.

"I feel a genuine sense of urgency about it," said John D. Porcari, the state secretary of transportation. "I think there's an opportunity cost if we don't act now."

No project is more urgent, Porcari and others say, than plans to expand and improve parking at BWI.

The airport used gravel over-flow lots to accommodate Christmas-season travelers last year, but planners say they don't have enough space for the projected increase this year. Blackshear has told his staff to quickly push through a $175 million parking construction package, which will include building a new garage near the terminal entrance, relocating all of the airport's rental car operations and paving new lots for employees.

Baltimore-Washington International is not the only airport experiencing such a crunch. Around the country, scores of large airports are undertaking multibillion-dollar development projects to accommodate growth in the passenger airline business.

San Francisco International Airport is considering a $2.5 billion project to build runways on a filled-in section of South Bay. Cleveland Hopkins International Airport wants to build a new runway and passenger terminal for $1.4 billion. A $2.5 billion project is under way at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

Those and other airports face the same prospect -- growth in the passenger airline business that has averaged 5 percent a year, according to Geneva-based Airports Council International.

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