A Flight of Fancy

Broward commissioners are spending big bucks on an unlikely airport-growth scheme

Broward County commissioners imagine a beautiful future for the Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood International Airport: Some day soon monorails will shuttle well-heeled passengers between elegant cruise ships and a new, mammoth international-airline terminal. An artificial stream will flow from a swimming pool, along a tree-lined walkway that meanders through a garden terrace over railroad tracks and a busy road. Teeming hotels, elegant shops, and first-class offices will perch above Federal Highway. Crowning it all will be a glittering, transparent atrium, enclosing 34 million airline passengers per year in acres of air-conditioned comfort.

Commissioners signed off on this plan June 5 and agreed to pay $600,000 to advance it after county aviation director Bill Sherry delivered a 28-page picture book called 2020 Vision.Authored by airport consultants Leigh Fisher Associates, the glossy, colorful booklet contains only rough sketches and terse captions. Sherry urged commissioners to hurry their vote; planned projects at the airport, including a 9000-space car-rental facility, will need to be redesigned to bear the weight of the 2020 plan's two eight-story hotels, swimming pool, and rooftop garden, he told them.

Sherry provided the genesis for this aviation castle in the sky, mulling it over for six months before telling Leigh Fisher Associates in March to "get a clean sheet of paper" and design something that would meet the commission's goal of "promoting airport/seaport synergy," says airport public information officer Jim Reynolds.

Imagining, like crack, is free the first time. But the price goes up quickly if you want more. Commissioners do. In addition to the $600,000 for a three-month review, determining if the project is feasible will take about 18 months and $1.9 million more, Sherry told the commission.

"One of the reasons we need the study is because [the 2020 plan] is sketchy," Commissioner Ben Graber says. "The only way to really find out is to study it, and to study it you have to spend money."

But it doesn't take $2.5 million to discover what's sketchy in 2020 Vision. It's unclear whether any of this -- the giant atrium, the people mover system, the elevated river walk, and the huge new international terminal -- is necessary. One thing, however, is clear -- airport users are likely to pay for what's built.

Sherry initially agreed to talk about the project with New Times, then canceled a meeting last week, saying he was too busy. His office did send a response to a faxed list of questions. "There are no costs that can be determined for the 2020 Vision because the scope of the project has not been defined," he wrote.

But one part of the plan has been defined: the need for a rapidly inflating airport. And therein lies the first flaw in 2020 Vision. Airport staffers estimate that last year's passenger total will more than double during the next two decades. How did they get this figure? "A real no-brainer," Reynolds says. Passenger traffic has grown from 6 million to 16 million in the last two decades. Airport planners assumed the same growth rate through 2020, he says. Neither Reynolds nor Steve Martin, a principal in the Leigh Fisher firm, has seen evidence growth will level off. "It's not going to stop at 16 million, I can tell you that," Martin adds.

But the Federal Aviation Administration, in its "FAA Aerospace Forecasts Fiscal Years 2001-2012," suggests airport traffic will increase at about half its current rate during the next decade, even without factoring in a likely economic slowdown and rising fuel prices. The FAA attributes much of the traffic increase during the past decade to increased numbers of air-cargo shipments and short-range commuter airlines. That kind of trade is expected to level off, the FAA reports.

If the growth estimate used by Leigh Fisher in the 2020 plan is wrong, it'll be par for the course. A 1994 projection by the consultants suggested the number of passengers at the airport would be no more than 13 million in 2015. Last year there were already 16 million. (Many clients are satisfied with Leigh Fisher's work. Projecting airport growth is always an iffy business, says Larry Bauman, senior planner for Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, where the consultants have worked since the late 1970s.)

Leigh Fisher's feasibility studies at Miami International Airport also raise some questions. Miami's addition of a runway, a new concourse, a car-rental center, and an elevated people mover as well as terminal renovations was originally scheduled for completion in 2000. But the project has dragged on for a decade as costs have grown from $1.6 billion to $6 billion. Completion has been pushed back to 2008. Miami airport officials cite changes in airline needs and cost overruns as the problems.

Like a faint echo the expansion now under way in Fort Lauderdale -- which includes a new parking garage, terminal, roads, and a car-rental center and garage -- started as a $230 million project when planned in 1996. Now it's expected to cost $650 million, and the car-rental center's projected completion has been pushed back from 2003 to 2004. Leigh Fisher did the financial feasibility study for that too, Sherry's office says.

Commissioners approved the changes to the present renovation plan. With that experience under their belts, some acknowledge that parts of Leigh Fisher's elaborate 2020 plan may be impractical if costs run too high. Commissioner Lori Parrish likes the "futuristic" look, especially of the hotel-ringed atrium containing shops, offices, and a rail station. "I'm not sure if every one of us agrees with every single aspect," she says, "but we all agreed with the vision."

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