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DENVER’S BOLD VISION TO PAY OFF AS AIRPORT PREPARES FOR TAKEOFF

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Ajoke making the rounds these days: "How is Denver International Airport different from the White House? (Pause.) Well, you can land a plane at the White House."

The much delayed opening of DIA, as Denver's flightless airport is known, has been highly unamusing for city officials, the airlines and bondholders. It's harder to open than one of those infernal tinfoil bags of peanuts that passes for an in-flight snack these days.The opening date has been bumped from October 1993 to February of next year. Meanwhile, the $3.5 billion in revenue bonds sold to finance the construction have sunk in price. Perched on the crack between just creditworthy and sub-investment grade, they are yielding over a percentage point more than the average tax-exempt revenue bond. Each passing hour the colossus remains unused revenues are deferred and costs pushed up.

The major snafu dynamiting efforts to open the airport is the luggage-eating automated baggage system. One analyst who saw the $200 million system up close and personal said it looked as if "every amusement park ride in the country had been squashed into the airport's bowels." But the system is critical. The faster transfer of luggage permits more flights to come and go, cutting the idle time that planes sit on the ground. This cuts airline costs greatly.

Originally pegged at just under $2 billion, the tab for the new airport has swelled to well over $3 billion. DIA was always going to be expensive: a massive complex covering 53 square miles with an astronomical 6 million square feet of space under roof. It will be 41/2 times larger in land area than O'Hare in Chicago but will handle only half as many flights initially.

But is there a financial crisis brewing, along the lines of the ill-fated Washington Public Power Supply System, which defaulted on $2.25 billion in bonds in 1983? In many ways, DIA invites comparisons with Whoops, as WPPSS is known.

Both were huge regional projects. Both were state of the art. Both were designed with dramatic growth in mind. Both faced construction problems. And both had man-age-ment problems.

DIA and WPPSS illustrate the huge risks that can accompany massive public works projects. It was true of the building of the Brooklyn Bridge and the Panama Canal, too. The big issues are whether there are close substitutes and popular willingness to support the cost while the vision unfolds.

The conventional wisdom is that Denverites will saddle up and pay the higher ticket costs, that Denver's central location and high-grade facilities will keep the airport viable, even if costly. Most tickets in and out of Denver will carry an embedded cost of $15 to $20, or two to three times the current surchrge at Stapleton, the existing airport. Hopefully, that added cost will get lost in average ticket prices of $350. But the ability to make the tariffs stick will depend on the airlines' ability to control prices and keep competing airports from sucking passengers away.

Until February's opening day - if that holds firm - the behemoth stands empty, beautiful and costing a million dollars more each day it's idle. But most important, it stands.

Unlike WPPSS, where the courts decided to repudiate the debt and sink the project before it could finish, the airport is completed, save for its balky baggage system. DIA embodies for the citizens of Denver an attempt to cement its hold on a vast region where air transport is essential to a high-value future. The forecast is that, despite a turbulent takeoff, the airport and its bonds will have a happy landing.