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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

A Flight of Fancy

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."

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.

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.

Further answers on the vision/plan are supposed to be forthcoming in the 18-month study, in which Leigh Fisher is being asked to give its opinion on whether a proposal by Leigh Fisher is practical. If the consultants determine their proposal has merit, they're likely to have a hand in further design work, Sherry told commissioners. A construction company called O'Brien-Kreitzberg Inc., which is working on the current airport expansion, will study whether the project can be built while Leigh Fisher considers finances, Martin says.

Although Graber is concerned about a possible conflict of interest, Rodstrom isn't. "To the untrained eye or to the casual observer, that may be something you think about," Rodstrom says. But he's not worried, because the vision described in 2020, particularly the airport-seaport link and on-site hotel, have long been discussed by airport staff.

Adds Parrish: "We have auditors and business planners that evaluate any idea that's brought forward."

But the only comment from "auditors and business planners" so far, from commission auditor Norm Thabit, was ignored by commissioners. Before the vote he urged them not to spend anything until they saw more details. Though Sherry acknowledged to the commission the project would cost "billions," Reynolds plays down the estimate with assurances of grants, business partnerships, and bonds.

Reynolds also mentions something called a "higher passenger-facility charge" that might help pay for the plan. That approach has already been tried in Miami, which jacked up the fee (a per-passenger toll paid by airlines to an airport) to finance its expansion. In Miami, airlines currently shell out three times more per traveler than they do in Fort Lauderdale.

But Sherry expects that most of the money to pay for 2020 Vision will come from leasing space around the atrium to the planned hotels, shops, and offices. "If anything, revenue generated by 2020 Vision may help to cover the capital costs of many non-2020 projects," he believes.


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