New Democrat Airport

The American Enterprise, March/April 1996

Denver International Airport (DIA) turned one year old on February 28. U.S. Transportation Secretary Federico Pena, who masterminded DIA during two terms as Mayor of Denver, will undoubtedly celebrate the birthday of what he calls the "crown jewel" of the American transportation system. But to Coloradans, "crown of thorns" might be more accurate.

For people like Mr. Pena who don't live in Colorado, DIA is a fine airport with great shopping. But for us folks living in Denver, it's a disaster. Other than Washington Dulles, no American airport is further from the city center. Denver's old Stapleton Airport, just a few minutes from downtown, was closed to prevent it from competing with DIA. Now getting to and from DIA can take longer than the plane trip itself.

DIA was sold to voters as a $1.5 billion project. Considering the cost overrun of more than 200 percent (caused in part by the aggressive use of racial preferences by Mayor Pena and his successor, Mayor Webb), the enormous interest on airport debt (caused by the junk rating on some of the airport bonds), and the costs of losing Stapleton, the $1.5 billion airport will cost over $12 billion--enough money to run the entire Denver government and all its services for 30 years.

DIA's airlines have to pay the costs of DIA through their landing fees, and they pass these costs directly on to their customers. So instead of spending $980 for a United Airlines round-trip from Denver to San Francisco, some travelers now drive an hour south to the new Colorado Springs airport, fly United from Colorado Springs to Denver to San Francisco (without need to deplane in Denver), and pay only $252.

Even with subsidy offers from the city of Denver, DIA has been unable to attract low-cost airlines to compete with United.

Not surprisingly, traffic at DIA is down 7 percent compared to Stapleton, and far below the grandiose projections on which DIA was based. Denver's net income from DIA is less than half of what it received from Stapleton for comparable periods. Meanwhile, the Colorado Springs airport is booming.

Denver's $593 million automated baggage system, a national laughingstock, will never work as designed. The local office of the Securities and Exchange Commission has recommended Denver be prosecuted for defrauding bondholders by covering up known baggage system problems during airport construction. The president of the local air traffic controllers union says, "everyone laughs at the weather radar. It reports thunderstorms when they're not there." He also noted that "the ground radar goes out all the time."

DIA's tented roof looks as if all the circuses in the world had set up operations next to each other. Then-mayor Pena insisted on the tented roof as "a global statement," rejecting design plans for a conventional roof. Several engineers, however, have expressed grave fears about this "global statement." The sprinkler system cannot reach much of the roof, and if it burns it will release fumes deadlier than mustard gas. Critics also worry that the airport roof may collapse under the weight of snow and ice buildup in the crevices (as did the Minneapolis Metrodome, designed by the same company). The roof has an energy efficiency rating of R1.8; the average American home is R30, and new ones aim for R60. Utility costs are consequently enormous.

The roof problems are currently minor compared to the floor problems. Denver opted to install an expensive form of Italian granite only half the thickness of normal granite floors. Rejecting a qualified bid from an American company to put in granite of standard thickness for $4.9 million, the city ended up spending $12 million, even after saving money by installing carpets in many areas intended for granite. Now the granite is cracking, creating a tripping hazard. Some panels have sunk below the rest of the floor. When Westword, Denver's alternative weekly, raised questions about the granite floor during construction, a Denver government architect replied (quite presciently), "Like the roof, it will be a hallmark of the airport."

When nominating Federico Pena to be Secretary of Transportation, President Clinton promised that Mr. Pena would do for America what he has done for Denver. One can only be thankful that this promise remains unfulfilled.

--David B. Kopel is research director of the
Independence Institute in Golden, Colorado.

 

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