Lambert's billion-dollar expansion hangs on a wing and a prayer: The numbers no longer add up

Airport commissioner John Krekeler didn't just fall off the baggage carousel.

A private pilot who makes his living as a Boeing aerospace engineer, Krekeler has spent three years on the seventeen-member commission, appointed as a representative from St. Charles County, where folks worry about the noise that a new runway at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport will bring.

When Krekeler joined the commission, airport brass said TWA's maintenance facilities and the Missouri Air National Guard headquarters would have to be relocated before the new $1.1 billion runway opened. Safety was the reason. The buildings, located near the end of the planned runway, were deemed airspace obstructions.

Kelly Brother
Lambert's new runway, part of a $1.1 billion expansion, is now slated to open in late 2006 (visit www.lambertexpansion.com to view the map in its entirety)
Lambert's new runway, part of a $1.1 billion expansion, is now slated to open in late 2006 (visit www.lambertexpansion.com to view the map in its entirety)

That was back in 2000. Before 9/11. Before bankrupt TWA was bought out by American Airlines. Before American steadily reduced flights, then announced in July that it will slash daily departures by more than one-half in November. Before Lambert, once the eleventh-busiest passenger airport in the world, arrived at the brink of losing its status as a major U.S. hub.

This July, faced with dramatic drops in passengers and flights, airport director Colonel Leonard Griggs told Krekeler and other airport commissioners that moving the Guard headquarters and the maintenance hangars will be postponed indefinitely owing to a lack of money. Moving the Guard will cost an estimated $35 million; relocating the hangars has an estimated price tag of $24 million.

Krekeler can't fathom how buildings that needed to be moved because of safety concerns are suddenly not an impediment to the new runway, which is scheduled to open in 2006. Bolstering his criticism of airport spending priorities, Krekeler points to a parking lot scheduled to open this fall. The airport launched the parking project in November 2001, buying out homeowners to make room for cars despite the terrorist attacks two months earlier that sent the air-travel industry into a slump from which it still hasn't recovered.

"Here, you've got...facilities that are absolutely, definitely in the runway protection zone," Krekeler says. "With fuel tanks. With the Missouri Air National Guard having ordinance bunkers. They just devastated an entire subdivision to build a new parking lot."

Not to worry, says Griggs, who promises he'll eventually come up with a plan for moving the Guard, which pays the airport $1 a year in a sweetheart lease that doesn't expire until 2023. The airport sees the $12 million parking lot as a moneymaker, even though there was plentiful parking at Lambert when construction began. Parking revenue fell by $4.4 million between fiscal years 2001 and 2002 and is down nearly 2 percent since 1998. The solution, according to a May prospectus accompanying a $29 million airport bond issue, is a marketing campaign "that will create brand awareness for all Airport parking facilities."

Spending millions on a parking lot while airspace obstructions remain unsolved puzzles isn't the only aspect of planning and financing at Lambert that Krekeler doesn't understand. He fears the new runway will prove a financial folly, but he's been a voice in the wilderness while his fellow commissioners rubber-stamp the hopes, dreams and plans of Lambert executives and St. Louis officials who have long seen the airport as a cash cow, which in the most recent fiscal year ending June 30 pumped $6.4 million into the city's general fund.

"I vote 'no' regularly on things they present poorly that I don't understand or that I don't think are good deals," Krekeler says. "I've never been able to get a second on any motion I've proposed. My intent is to bring things to light that they'd rather not talk about. I think the airport sits on information that they refuse to share with the commission. I've asked repeatedly for [financial] details. I continually get vague responses. I'm an engineer. You've got to show me numbers, man.

"Don't give me vague statements and say, 'Trust me, everything's OK.' That's bullshit."

Krekeler and other skeptics say they doubt the new runway will pay for itself, as airport officials and city politicians promised in 1991 when St. Louis voters overwhelmingly approved a measure allowing the airport to issue up to $1.5 billion in bonds for airport expansion. Voters last spring approved another $2 billion in borrowing for Lambert for capital-improvement projects not related to the new runway.

All told, the airport has slightly less than $940 million in outstanding bond debt, including $505 million for the new runway, which is the most expensive public-works project in state history.

Griggs and city officials have long insisted that everything will be just fine, no matter what. Falling demand for air travel? The market will bounce back. Cutbacks in American flights? Competing airlines will make up the difference. Airline bankruptcies? Our leases with airlines and our lawyers will protect us, and even if they don't, other airlines will come to Lambert because St. Louis, by virtue of its location near the center of the United States, is an irresistible hub for airlines. Such optimistic predictions have been repeated and embraced by influential entities such as the Regional Chamber and Growth Association (RCGA), Civic Progress and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Don't count on it, says at least one expert with no stake in Lambert expansion.

"We know this: American is going to eliminate their connecting flights," says Michael Boyd, president of the Boyd Group, an aviation consulting firm based in Evergreen, Colorado. "The argument that someone else is going to come in there? I don't think so. They might. But the airport bringing someone else in is about as likely as Ed McMahon showing up at your door with that $1 million check from Publishers Clearinghouse."

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