Dan Walters: Sacramento's airport has lesson for bullet-train backers

11/19/2012 12:00 AM

10/20/2014 1:32 PM

When Sacramento International Airport opened its lavish new terminal a year ago, it did so with a maximum of hoopla and hyperbole about a bright new era of air travel for California's capital.

Airport officials last month marked the first anniversary of the billion-dollar terminal – the most striking feature of which is a huge sculpture of a rabbit suspended in midair – rather inauspiciously by closing one of the facility's "economy" parking lots.

Why? The official reason was that the lot was never meant to be permanent and is subject to flooding during rainstorms.

But airport passenger traffic, which dropped sharply after hitting 10 million passengers a year in the middle of the last decade, hasn't recovered, and the airport is facing something of a financial squeeze.

Airport officials deny a revenue motive, but by closing a 2,000-car economy lot, the airport is funneling customers during busy travel periods into another surface lot nearer its two terminals that costs them more and has been mostly vacant.

The airport did need a new terminal to replace one that was aged, cramped and somewhat decrepit, and it could have simply duplicated a handsome, perfectly serviceable terminal that opened in 1998. But it opted, instead, for a massive new structure that would be connected to a second structure by a trolley.

The airlines objected to the grandiose scheme because they, along with passengers, would be paying for the bonds to finance what officials called the "big build." But county supervisors were persuaded to take the plunge. "We didn't want to stand in the shadow of another city," now-retired airport manager Hardy Acree declared.

By the time the terminal opened in 2011, however, traffic had dropped by more than a million passengers a year and airlines were cutting flights. The extra fees that the airport levied to pay for the project barely cover bond service costs.

The parking lot switch-eroo indicates that the airport is still facing a financial squeeze – one that could have been avoided had those involved in the project opted for the less spectacular but thriftier duplicate of that other terminal.

Ironically, too, the new terminal is much less user-friendly than its more modest sibling. Passengers must walk farther from the parking garage that serves both, plus take the aforementioned herky-jerky tram to the second building to board their planes.

Airlines and passengers are paying more for less convenience, and customers are being forced into more expensive parking to boot.

Ancient potentates erected pyramids and temples as monuments to themselves. Today's self-important officials build grandiose airport terminals and sports arenas with their subjects' money.

And an unwanted, unnecessary bullet train perhaps?

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