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New airport terminal for Durango-La Plata on table

By Jim Haug Herald staff writer

With the skyrocketing, double-digit growth in passengers, it’s not inconceivable that Durango-La Plata County Airport could have direct international flights to Mexico or Canada within the next five years, Aviation Director Kip Turner said Friday.

And with that growth could also come the need for a new terminal, Turner said, which “ballpark” estimates put at $25 million to $30 million. If plans move at a fast pace, voters might be asked in November to spring for the expense.

It’s likely the airport will serve close to 200,000 passengers this year, becoming the fifth-busiest airport in the state and in league with other Colorado airports that are subsidized by their local ski resorts and have cheaper fares.

The growth comes with costs as the airport needs more space for airline operations, restrooms, baggage and security. With bigger airplanes serving the airport, Turner said the airport terminal could use a second level so passengers could board by sky-bridge instead of walking outside to their plane.

As a solution, Turner suggested that it might make more sense to build a new terminal rather than get into the “Money Pit” situation of trying to maintain an aging terminal that’s about 25 years old.

Restoring an older terminal with little room for growth would be like “putting lipstick on a pig,” Turner told a joint retreat of the Durango City Council and La Plata County commissioners, who share jurisdiction of the airport.

An airport is supposed to be like the “front door of the community” in creating a good first impression on visitors, Turner said.

It’s also an important asset. According to a Colorado Department of Transportation 2012 Economic Impact Study, the local airport contributes $328 million to the economy.

Because of the volatile state of the airline industry, it’s important to maintain infrastructure to keep and attract flights, said Turner, who would like to bring Southwest and Delta airlines and provide more flights to hubs such as Atlanta and western destinations such as Los Angeles and San Francisco.

City Councilor Dean Brookie said a previously planned $6 million to $8 million expansion could now to increase to a $25 million to $30 million project, based on “ballpark” estimates.

“That’s a take-off,” quipped County Commissioner Bobby Lieb.

The previous plans for an airport expansion were based on estimates on what a facility charge on airline tickets could generate in funding.

With the fast growth in passengers proving previous assumptions to be flawed, officials say they are now trying to look more realistically at what the airport needs.

Turner wants to hire an engineering firm in July to make an assessment and revise its master plan.

Under an aggressive schedule, voters in November could be asked to approve a bond measure for capital improvements to the airport with construction beginning a year later after the design is completed.

The community would have to raise its own source of revenue to pay for the terminal project because funding from the Federal Aviation Administration typically goes toward “safety projects” such as improvements to the runway, Turner said.

After Turner’s presentation, City Councilor Sweetie Marbury suggested that a portion of the sales tax that pays the debt on the Durango Community Recreation Center could be transferred to a new airport facility once the debt on the center is paid off.

Because it was an informal retreat, no policy decisions were made.

City Attorney David Smith complimented Turner on his handout.

“I like how you phrased this, ‘Terminal Discussion.’ It’s almost like Hodgkin’s,” Smith said.

jhaug@durangoherald.com

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