DAN WALTERS: Grand edifices can embarrass

November 18, 2012 

When Sacramento International Airport opened its lavish new terminal a year ago, it did it 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 -- whose most striking feature is a huge sculpture of a rabbit suspended in midair -- rather inauspiciously by shutting down one of the facility's parking lots.

Why?

The official reason was that the so-called "economy" parking lot was never meant to be permanent and is subject to flooding. during rainstorms.

The real reason, most likely, is that 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 a financial squeeze.

By closing the 2,000-car economy lot, the airport is funneling customers into another surface lot nearer its two terminals that costs them more and has been mostly vacant.

The airport needed a new terminal to replace one that was aged, cramped and decrepit, and it could have simply duplicated a handsome and perfectly serviceable terminal that opened in 1998. But its officials, instead, opted 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, traffic had dropped by more than a million passengers a year and airlines were cutting flights. The extra fees the airport levied to pay for the project barely cover bond service costs.

The parking lot switcheroo indicates the airport is still facing a squeeze -- one that could have been avoided had officials opted for a less spectacular, but thriftier alternative terminal.

Ironically, 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 planes.

Thus, airlines and passengers are paying more for less convenience and customers are being forced into more expensive parking.

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?

E-mail: dwalters@sacbee.com

THE SACRAMENTO BEE

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