Cost soars for Hartsfield-Jackson curbside canopies project

4:38 p.m Wednesday, March 1, 2017 Business
Rendering of curbside canopies to be built at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. The complexity of the design requires deep support pillars and other work that has driven up the initial cost estimate by more than 60 percent.

The price tag for adding massive canopies and making other improvements to the curbside at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport is heftier than first expected, with airport officials seeking approval for another $102.5 million in costs.

The original amount for a contract with New South-McCarthy for terminal modernization work including the canopies was $163 million, approved in late 2015.

But as airport planners and contractors reviewed plans for the canopies, the plans got more complex, the scope of the work grew — and the cost increased substantially.

The total will now be $265 million with work on the canopies expected to continue until early 2019. It’s a hallmark project in the $6 billion, 20-year plan to modernize and expand Hartsfield-Jackson.

Some of the increase is for work to prepare for new pedestrian bridges from the parking decks to the terminal. The parking decks will eventually be demolished and rebuilt under a different contract, but retaining walls and foundation work for the bridges are being included in the canopy project.

But the cost is also increasing because of the final canopy design, which added complexity and requires installation of deep pillars to support the structures.

The two 65-foot-tall, steel-framed canopies to be built over the South curbside and North curbside will each weigh 3.5 million pounds.

“There’s going to be a lot of facilities moved to make room for it,” Hartsfield-Jackson general manager Roosevelt Council said.

Putting in the 4-foot-by-10-foot pillars to support the canopies will require relocation of Delta Air Lines’ curbside check-in counters, baggage conveyor belts and utilities including fiber optic cable, phone lines and pipes.

“It’s quite an undertaking,” said Frank Rucker, Hartsfield-Jackson’s assistant general manager for planning and development.

The Atlanta City Council’s transportation committee on Wednesday voted unanimously in favor of the additional expense. The measure goes to the full city council on Monday.

Rucker said the original $163 million cost estimate approved was “high conceptual level pricing,” before design work was completed.

The airport had earlier considered a simpler and more basic canopy over parts of the curbside.

We decided we wanted more,” Rucker said. “We wanted to offer a different level of service.”

Once New South-McCarthy was signed on as the construction manager for the project with a contract signed in March 2016, “we got to look at challenges,” Rucker said.

And the challenges are many.

The canopies will each be the length of nearly three football fields, with a curved architectural frame that will be complex to construct.

Airport roads, parking garages and curbside check-in areas must be kept open and operational while the construction is going on below, above and around them. That affects the sequence of the work and the amount of time it takes.

The construction will require lane closures and detours affecting travelers driving to the terminal for another year and a half.

Rucker also said labor costs have risen due to a shortage of construction workers. He cited competition from other major projects in the region, including Mercedes-Benz stadium and SunTrust Park.

Steel prices, too, are higher than expected when the airport began the project, Rucker said. He said initial costs were based on $8,000 a ton, while the actual price turned out to be $13,000 a ton.

The airport is owned by the city of Atlanta. But by law its finances are kept separate from the city’s. Money for the additional cost will come from passenger facility charges — the $4.50 in fees each passenger pays per flight — and airport revenue from operations such as parking, concessions and airline usage fees.

Asked if airport officials considered going back to a more mundane straight canopy when faced with the logistical challenges and costs of their plans, Rucker said: “We still want to make a statement with the modernization.”

“We have a vision for what we want, and this is what we want,” he said.

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