Kempner: Atlanta airport launches pricey underground adventure

2:09 p.m Thursday, Sept. 22, 2016 Business

The honchos at the Atlanta airport are becoming adept at spending jumbo loads of passenger money on projects with surprisingly big price tags.

Like the latest plan to drop nearly a third of a billion dollars to ensure the airport’s growing wave of passengers doesn’t overload the underground train that connects the terminals and concourses. The changes would put more trains on the track and cut the time between trains by 18 seconds.

“That may not sound like a big deal,” Tom Nissalke, the airport’s director of planning, told me. But for the airport to provide good customer service, he said it has to get people where they need to be.

“Imagine an assembly line,” spokesman Reese McCranie said. “If one cog in a wheel comes undone… it affects the entire line.”

Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Longest-Named Airport has a lock on a closed loop of cash that only it can use. That’s what happens to the mountains of money generated at the city-owned airport as well as things like government-imposed ticket fees paid by each passenger on departing flights. (As the world’s busiest airport, Hartsfield-Jackson’s take is especially big. It pulled in $704.6 million in revenue just last year.)

The walled-off approach to airport money is smart, and it’s apparently common among big airports. Hartsfield-Jackson is a giant economic milk cow for Georgia. It needs nurturing, not politicians anxious to siphon away money for unrelated pet projects.

But that doesn’t mean every pleasant-sounding project at the airport needs to get a green light for jaw-dropping spending.

It cost $4.1 million, more than three times what had been planned.

Sounded good until I heard the price tag. Officials have earmarked $200 million for bridges and canopies, which also are supposed to make powerful architectural statements. (Couldn’t we just hire people with umbrellas to walk visitors across and maybe say welcoming things?)

Now comes the Plane Train project and plans to tunnel 600 feet under the airport’s MARTA station and the Sky Train. The mostly behind-the-scenes work will cut the gap between the automated trains by 18 seconds. (Which works out to a cost of about $17 million per second shaved.)

That and the addition of 11 new train cars will allow the system to move 12,000 passengers per hour in each direction, up from about 10,000 now, said Nissalke, the planning chief. The work is supposed to begin in 2018 and be completed a year later.

Did I mention it will cost nearly a third of a billion dollars? (Over $300 million currently estimated.)

“It’s like they’ve got cash burning a hole in their pockets,” said Jeff Bulger, a software guy from Marietta who flies 40 weeks a year.

He likes a lot of the improvements already made at the airport.

(Hartsfield-Jackson has become increasingly humane in recent years. There’s better food, better technology, better touches of customer service, which I’m sure isn’t easy when they’re herding more than 101 million passengers a year.)

But Bulger told me there should be more focus on shortening security lines rather than investing in the underground trains.

Actually, Hartsfield-Jackson is just getting warmed up as it preps for millions of additional passengers. In all, its master plan calls for some $6 billion in big projects over the next 20 years. That includes everything from enlarging parking decks, renovating concourses, and adding an on-site hotel, to eventually building a new concourse and runway.

If you give even a well-intentioned bureaucracy money, it will come up with ways to spend it. Many may be worthwhile projects that are worth the cost.

But are some of these projects worth the money being pulled out of passengers’ pockets? Wouldn’t a little more restraint allow the airport to reduce costs that ultimately will be borne by the passengers it’s supposed to be serving?

So far, Atlanta’s mayor and city council have signed off on the airport’s long-range plans. Much of the money will come from the $4.50 passenger facility charges tacked onto each leg of a ticketed flight. Like most airports, Hartsfield-Jackson sets the charge at the maximum allowed by the federal government.

Airlines that fly out of Atlanta will have to help cover the project costs, too, though it’s safe to assume their customers will be the ones to really pay.

Delta, the airport’s dominant airline, isn’t flinching.

“We support the projects in the airport’s master plan,” the airline said in a statement, “and we’ll continue to partner with the city to ensure that items remain inline on cost, scope and schedule – maintaining the airport’s position as an economic engine for the city and the region.”

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