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Denver's New Airport: Field of Dreams or Debt?

Nation's newest airport opens, 14 months late, but many residents question the cost

BY most accounts Denver International Airport is, at least, an eye-popper. Perched on the dry-grass prairie northeast of town, its main terminal is topped by 15 acres of Teflon-coated fiberglass, draped to create 34 peaks.

Inside the 16-million-square-foot structure, vendors hawk everything from burritos to perfume. The floors and walls glint with granite, marble, and terrazzo, and everywhere nooks host specially commissioned artwork.

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The only question now is: Will this megaproject pay off for Denver and the Rocky Mountain West?

As it opens today, city officials say this ``field of dreams'' will bring jobs and commerce to the region and establish Denver as a world-class city. Critics, noting the airfield is 14 months behind schedule and almost $3 billion over budget, liken it to a field of debt.

The outcome of the airport, known as DIA, has wide implications for large municipal projects across the country. Rarely before has an American city leveraged so much money and influence on the belief that a single building will put its people to work and deposit the world at its doorstep.

``This kind of massive public-works project is not for the faint of heart,'' says Bill Smith, former manager of Denver's department of public works. ``If we don't make dust, we'll eat dust.''

Billed as the world's most technologically advanced jetport, DIA's five runways are designed to accommodate three simultaneous landings in foul weather and to allow as many as 80 planes to take off and land in half an hour.

At 35,000 acres, DIA is also one of the world's largest airfields: roughly the size of the District of Columbia. If all its technology works, engineers say DIA could someday hustle 110 million travelers a year through 200 gates.

Boosters say DIA will be a welcome change from 65-year-old Stapleton - America's sixth busiest airport - which has long been perceived as a choke point in the nation's air transportation system, especially during snowstorms.

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But to many Coloradans, DIA is a boondoggle. As first advertised, the airport was to open in October 1993 and push 56 million passengers through 120 gates in its first year. Yet it now opens with only 77 occupied gates and a likely annual traffic of 32 million. Ironically, DIA will offer 30 fewer gates than Stapleton.

Initially, DIA planners said the city would issue $500 million in municipal bonds to finance the project. Now, the bond sale has topped $3 billion. While no Colorado tax dollars went to fund DIA, Denver passengers are being hit with myriad fees, including an airport surcharge of up to $40 on tickets, and a 12 percent tax on hotel rooms - charges some say will impact local tourism.

In addition, questions about shoddy workmanship continue, and the airport's $300-million automated baggage system - responsible for two of the airport's four canceled openings - will only operate on one of DIA's three concourses.

Meanwhile in Washington, a phalanx of federal agencies and congressional committees is investigating claims that DIA officials mismanaged airport funds, rewarded campaign donors with airport contracts, and deliberately falsified tests and withheld reports from voters and investors.

Continental Airlines has slashed service from Denver and says it has no plans to pay all of the $46 million the city expects from it. Denver attorneys filed suit against Continental last week.

Some analysts contend that any combination of investor lawsuits, technical failures, and canceled service at DIA could bankrupt the city and close the airport.

``The costs have simply escalated beyond the point that we have a usable project,'' says Paul Earle, a Denver-based engineer and leading DIA critic. ``This operation was run by bankers and lawyers who had no experience in business and construction.''

The firefight over DIA opens a longstanding debate about whether municipal governments alone can effectively manage large-scale public works. George Rolfe, an urban planning professor from the University of Washington, says publicly run projects like DIA encounter problems because ``you have two distinct processes going on, one political and the other technical, and they have very little to do with one another.''

Paul Dempsey, a transportation expert at the University of Denver, says airport backers, led by then-Mayor Federico Pena, presented a convincing case for building a new airport in the mid-1980s, but failed to recognize that rosy traffic forecasts made before airline deregulation would never bloom. Mr. Pena, now secretary of transportation, said recently that had he known how much the airline business would change, he might have downsized DIA. Some airport critics, however, don't buy it.

``This is more than a controversy,'' says Michael Boyd, president of a Denver-based airport consulting firm and a longstanding DIA critic. ``It's a scandal.''

According to Mr. Boyd, the main airport supporters were far less interested in the facility as a means of transportation than as a way to create jobs during a deep regional recession.

Some politicians both here and in Washington propose turning control of DIA over to a private authority. Nevertheless, DIA's proponents dismiss the criticism as ``shortsighted.'' The airport, they say, was not constructed for Denver's short-term needs, but will reach its maximum value sometime in the next century, when other cities are pouring billions into expanding existing facilities.

Forty years from now, Denver will be a hive of international commerce, says a DIA spokesman, ``and nobody's going to give a hoot about that $5 billion.''

``All the great cities of the world have viable transportation systems,'' says Jim DeLong, Denver's director of aviation.

Yet today, as the first steel birds touch down at DIA, the excitement in Denver is almost palpable. Many people here seem willing to excuse the airport for the follies of its managers.

``Kings may come and go,'' says Vince Jones, a skycap for Delta Airlines, ``but we get to keep the castle.''

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