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Local News

Airport Terminal Project Cleared But Likely to Face Delays

While the first phase has begun, bond financing issues could affect further progress of the project.

Despite the crippling economy, a massive project to replace the main terminal at the Santa Barbara Airport with one three times the size remains in the works, although the next phases of construction most likely will be delayed by at least two months.

The Santa Barbara City Council on Tuesday gave approval for the city staff to issue bonds in order to come up with the cash to complete the $63 million project.

The first phase of the construction project has begun, but it doesn’t affect the general public like the next two phases will. The first phase involves the improvement of a terminal ramp, which is a portion of the airport where planes are parked.

The second phase will change the vehicle drop-off loop temporarily into something more kidney-shaped, making the curves sharper and more awkward, but increasing the total area of drop-off parking. This phase will clear space for the third phase, which will be the construction of the new terminal.

The second phase affecting the drop-off loop was supposed to begin this month, but could be delayed until February or later, airport Director Karen Ramsdell said. She said phase three probably will begin about five months after crews break ground on phase two.

The reason for the delays has to do with the bond financing. With the collapse of the credit market, bonds are very difficult to sell. What’s more, according to estimates, the airport could find itself paying interest as high as 8 percent on the bonds.

On Tuesday, City Finance Director Bob Peirson told the City Council that he put the figure at 6 percent a couple of years ago, an amount he said was “wildly conservative” at the time.

“The world has changed,” he said. “We’re just going to have to wait and see in January what the market looks like.”

The good news is that the bids for the main terminal project came in far lower than anticipated last week.

The lowest of the nine bids came in at $32.5 million, while the highest was $38.6 million. Engineers had anticipated a cost of $45.6 million.

“Contractors were very hungry,” Ramsdell said.

City and airport officials are hoping Congress and the new presidential administration will enact a stimulus package in January that could loosen the markets and improve the interest rates somewhat.

They want to sell the bonds before mid-March, because that is when the bids expire.

Through the years, the terminal has become crowded because of a steady rise in passengers, as well as a pronounced increase in security equipment as mandated by the Homeland Security Department after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

According to the plans, the new 60,000-square-foot terminal will triple the size of the current one, while at the same time preserving the historic, cylindrical façade, which was built in 1942. The proposed new terminal is slated to open around the beginning of 2012, and will be located directly to the south of the current one, which will remain in use throughout the construction.

Among other things, the new two-story terminal will provide passengers with restaurants, restrooms and gift shops on the other side of the metal detectors, near the gates.

As a result of the construction, the airport recently opened a new long-term parking lot just off Hollister Avenue and Lopez Road, the site of an old drive-in cinema. From there, a free shuttle takes passengers to the airport every 10 minutes.

The new lot opened up because, eventually, part of the long-term parking lot near the airport will be closed to make room for construction.

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