A Flight of Fancy

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

Perhaps the most striking thing in the 2020 plan is the atrium, which is to be surrounded by three multistory curved buildings. It would enclose about six acres in glass and sit smack on top of Federal Highway. The booklet doesn't address what kind of structural support this massive complex would need, but Sherry told the commission the glitz would make it worthwhile; Fort Lauderdale needs the glass canopy to "showcase our light, airy, beautiful weather."

Of course South Florida weather isn't always beautiful. The atrium would have to meet hurricane code. Just the glass to cover such an area would run at least $3 million, and possibly several times that, says Jeff Riggett, area sales representative for Viracon, which installed hurricane-resistant glass in the current airport car-rental facility in 1995.

Then there are cooling costs. Air-conditioning the Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, which is about one-third the size of the imagined atrium, runs about $130,000 per month in the summer, says Bob Gardner, building superintendent. Extrapolating that to a building the size of the envisioned atrium would mean cooling costs close to $5 million per year.

Wretched excess may some day soon fill international travelers' first view of Broward County
Wretched excess may some day soon fill international travelers' first view of Broward County

But that's the price of a dream -- a signature building for Broward County, making "Broward the place to want to visit throughout this hemisphere," as Commissioner Josephus Eggelletion put it in the meeting.

There's no estimate of how many hotel rooms would surround the complex, but the plan shows a second, smaller atrium perched atop the planned car-rental facility. It would hang between two more eight-story hotels, which Reynolds says could each contain up to 250 rooms. Attracting hotels is a key part of financing 2020 Vision, he acknowledges.

Leigh Fisher Associates cited profitable hotels in the Miami and Orlando airports as examples. But while both hotels now make money, they didn't from day one -- it was four or five years before the Hyatt in Orlando contributed to airport revenues, says Maureen Riley, Orlando airport deputy executive director of finance and administration. In 2002 that hotel will contribute $1.6 million to airport coffers. (Miami International's 16-year-old inn earns about $6.5 million per year.)

Moreover Orlando's on-site Hyatt has only 446 rooms. The Miami International Airport Hotel has 259 -- and each airport already serves as many passengers as Fort Lauderdale's estimate for 2020. Thus it's questionable whether hotel revenues could help finance the more elaborate and expensive parts of the 2020 plan. Indeed Commission Chairman John Rodstrom, who approved the $600,000 expenditure on June 5, now calls the atrium a "pie-in-the-sky thing.... I really didn't put much stock in that, but it looked nice in the picture," he says. He agreed to the plan for other reasons, particularly the proposed people mover, which would link the airport to Port Everglades and eventually downtown Fort Lauderdale.

More than 3000 cruise passengers per day travel between Port Everglades and the airport. Much of the elaborate expansion plan is geared toward impressing these tourists. Rodstrom is sending a copy of 2020 Vision to U.S. Rep. E. Clay Shaw (R-Florida), who wants to seek federal funding for a train to connect the airport with downtown, Rodstrom says.

The port wants to move people too but for now is more interested in moving cargo, says Ellen Kennedy, the port's director of corporate and community relations. And Reynolds forecasts the first phase of the people mover proposed in the 2020 plan would be on airport property.

The 2020 Vision is unclear about whether the train would be a monorail or a light-rail system more akin to Tri-Rail. Monorail costs vary widely, according to the Monorail Society, a volunteer group that promotes them. But based on project profiles listed on the society's Website, one of the least expensive systems now operating in the United States (running between casinos in Las Vegas) would cost about $150 million for the six miles to connect the port, airport terminals, and downtown.

For a close-to-home example of the train, the automated four-and-a-half-mile Miami Metromover system has cost more than $400 million so far while carrying a fraction of the expected passengers.

Even the consultants may be a little doubtful on this one. Leigh Fisher executive Peter Mandle told World Airport Week in January 2000, "There's not a big market for public transportation to airports in the U.S."

To entertain cruise passengers when they're not riding the rails, the 2020 plan envisions a bridge arching over the Florida East Coast Railway line from the garage-top hotels to the main airport atrium. The span would include a shallow river lined with trees and shops. Asked for an example of this novel idea, Martin says, "I don't think something like what you see in the plan has been done anywhere specifically."

Another addition depends on a new 9000-foot south runway, which is planned but not yet approved. The 2020 plan shows a new, 18-gate international terminal -- larger than any of the present ones -- to handle the anticipated international cruise passengers. It, too, features walls of glass and is promoted as a "world-class gateway to Broward County."

"It's a wish list," Reynolds says. Neither he nor Martin would comment on whether any of the projects in the 2020 scheme is practical. "That's why its called a "vision,' not a plan," Reynolds says. "We're very careful about that." Nevertheless both Reynolds and Martin refer to "the plan" during telephone interviews.

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