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The FAA will pay for some airport improvements.
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Thinkin’ of a Master Plan

Santa Fe maps the future of its upstart airport and tries to ensure a new terminal is paid in full

August 30, 2017, 12:00 am

Stand on the tarmac outside the Santa Fe Municipal Airport’s terminal and you could be forgiven for scoffing at the notion that there’s a space problem here. Mountains rise in the distance. The wind blows unfettered. There’s nary a tree in sight and you can see for miles.

Stand outside the front of the terminal—or even just inside the doors—and you start to understand why the city is anxious for expansion. There’s not much room to maneuver if one of the handful of commercial flights is leaving in next couple hours. It’s quaint, but cramped.

“We need a new terminal,” airport director Cameron Humphres tells SFR bluntly. “That’s fairly obvious in terms of the size of the terminal, its location and that sort of thing.”

While the current terminal is too small inside, though, the airport also has a space problem on the outside, and as a host of city committees consider approving the airport’s master plan in the coming weeks, the two challenges go hand in hand.

The airport master plan doesn’t tackle the cost of building a new terminal, only the concept of and timing for it. Instead, the plan charts a course for maintenance, operations and future development. In large part, that’s because a new terminal could cost almost $40 million, and it’s not certain there’s the political will to commit that kind of cash.

“That would be the equivalent of two years of the city’s current capital-project spending,” says Renee Martinez, deputy city manager. The potential airport investment needs a frank discussion about what it would mean for spending on things like roads, parks, police, fire and broadband. “It’s a hard decision about priorities,” she says.

“A city has to have good, robust air service if it’s going to create jobs and if it’s going to grow,” says Stuart Kirk, executive director of the Northern New Mexico Air Alliance, a public-private partnership designed to bring more direct flights to Santa Fe.

Kirk says the airport’s big sell is its convenience. While another direct flight to someplace like Los Angeles, Chicago or Salt Lake City might be a win, it would also put pressure on the terminal. Fly into or out of Santa Fe now, and the process is generally smooth from the time a traveler jumps into her car to the time she steps on a plane.

“It’s not the time to the airport,” Kirk explains, “it’s really the time to the gate.”

While the alliance considers how to attract more travelers and more flights, the city has estimates in hand that will check off two of the most pressing needs at the airport—reconstructing the primary taxiway from the southwest end of the main runway back to the terminal, and repairing the top couple inches of landing surface on the entire main runway. Those two projects will cost roughly $4.2 million if the FAA approves the apparent low bids. The federal government covers the vast majority of that work, leaving the city on the hook for less than $132,000—about the cost of a condo in midtown.

According to the master plan draft that’s in front of the Airport Advisory Board on Wednesday, there is nearly $30 million in other needed improvements and maintenance costs over the next 20 years. They include a quick-turnaround facility for rental cars, a new entrance from the as-yet-unused interchange with Highway 599 and an extension of the primary runway to potentially enable it to handle larger commercial jets.

There’s also the planned improvement of the airport’s third runway, known by the abbreviation for the 180-degree difference in its compass headings: 10-28. It’s key to the space problem outside the terminal, and it may play a much larger role in paying for a new terminal than expected—especially considering it’s temporarily closed because of bad pavement.

The Federal Aviation Administration’s funding structure normally won’t pay for a third runway—let alone a new terminal. But because the layout of the airport runs afoul of safety guidelines, there’s a chance that the feds would kick in money to make sure an airport that is almost certain to get more busy will also be more safe.

“It makes funding for the terminal more competitive,” Humphres says.

For now, job one is getting the airport master plan approved. It hasn’t been updated since 2002, and when it’s completed, both the city and the FAA will have a better idea of what lies ahead. By next year, the city could be hiring an architect to design a new terminal and, perhaps, have a better idea of how much of the bill for it would be paid by the federal government.


 

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