Wednesday, March 20, 2002 Mayor: Fix or shut Detroit City Airport Kilpatrick wants $400 million for runway, terminal By Darci McConnell, Cameron McWhirter and Joel J. Smith The Detroit (MI) News DETROIT -- Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick is likely to run into the roadblocks that frustrated his two predecessors as he revisits the idea of expanding Detroit City Airport for commercial passenger service. There isn't enough money. There might not be enough potential passenger traffic. More space is needed. Kilpatrick himself framed the issue in blunt business terms: Fix it or shut it down. Kilpatrick said the city should investigate obtaining $400 million in state and federal funds to build a new runway and upgrade the terminal. "Either build a new runway and compete," Kilpatrick said in remarks to the Detroit Black Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday, "or close it." Another obstacle: Local neighbors and east-side suburbs are likely to fight any effort to bring a steady flow of noisy jetliners to the area. "We're opposed to it, and we will fight any plan like that, as we have fought any other plan that's come forward," said Michael Greiner, deputy mayor of the city of Warren. Said Detroit Community Initiative President Mike Fisher, who has lived near City Airport for 17 years: "Maybe we need to be creative before we say let's put any more money in." If the airport, which opened in 1927, is closed the land could be offered to residential real estate developers, Kilpatrick said. Kilpatrick again touted his mother's access to federal money. U.S. Rep. Carolyn Cheeks-Kilpatrick, D-Detroit, serves on the transportation subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee. She didn't return calls seeking comment. Efforts in recent decades to transform City Airport from a general aviation airport into a commercial facility have been unsuccessful. Since 1988, the city has invested $40 million in upgrades at the airport, including a $25-million runway expansion under Mayor Coleman Young in 1988. Resident protests forced him to change his initial plans to extend the runway into Gethsemane Cemetery. Young's failed plans to create an expanded 7,200-foot runway forced Southwest Airlines to pull out of the airport in 1993 after five years there. It was followed by a brief stay by U.S. Air Express, which left the site in 1994. Mayor Dennis Archer wooed Seattle-based Pro Air to the facility in 1997. The airline filed for bankruptcy protection in 2000, after the Federal Aviation Administration idled the company because of safety concerns. Archer also tried to look into expanding the runway, but with no success. He did get $25 million in bond money for repairs to the terminal and more parking for Pro Air. The company's plan was to offer cheap fares to major companies in Metro Detroit such as DaimlerChrysler, General Motors Corp. and Masco. In return, the companies guaranteed seats and loaned the airline money to operate. To get $25 seats, the United Auto Workers loaned the carrier $14 million. GM loaned it about $9 million. All lost money in the bankruptcy. State officials weren't optimistic about Kilpatrick's plan. Ari Adler, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Transportation, which oversees efforts to expand the state's airports, said Congress will soon be working on the federal airport transportation bill, which is expected to include millions more for airports, but most of the money will go to security improvements following Sept. 11, not to new runways. Adler said Kilpatrick would have a tough time getting $400 million from the federal government, even with his mother on the House transportation committee. "Thats a huge amount of money to come up with," he said. Asked if the state could subsidize such an effort, Adler said: "I can tell you right now we do not have $400 million laying around (for airports)." A substantial expansion of City Airport could easily exceed $400 million anyway. The new 10,000-foot runway opened in February at Detroit Metro Airport in Romulus cost $225 million and took 10 years to complete. Building a two-mile runway for Denver International Airport cost $60 million, said Paul Dempsey, director of the transportation law program at the University of Denver. But the land acquisition -- for 56 square miles -- was $241.6 million. The Denver airport is one of two entirely new ones built in the past 30 years, he added. Attempting any serious airport construction will be cumbersome, Dempsey said. "This is a battle that will have to be waged on three different battlefields: political, getting the city, City Council and certainly the congressional delegation; legal, dealing with environmental problems that will be imposed; and financial, securing the capital." Added Kevin P. Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, a Lafayette Hills, Pa., group: "It takes a lot of money just to get through the approval process. You could almost worry about the money for the actual construction later. It's so far off in the future. The money you need now is just to get the ball rolling." The city would need an additional 250 acres for a new runway, said Delbert Brown, the airport's acting director. It would have to conduct an environmental impact study for the surrounding residential neighborhood. The airport, with a 53,000-square-foot terminal, has 310 aircraft based there. The primary runway is 6,084 feet long, with a landing distance of 5,090 feet. Brown said neighbors "are well aware of the city of Detroit's efforts to improve the airport. We do have a dialogue on an ongoing basis." Both Fisher and Greiner said Tuesday that they hadn't been told of an effort to get money for a new runway, however. If a new runway isn't constructed, the mayor's second choice is to have the site used as a general aviation facility. "If you build a runway, you could do both. That's where I am," Kilpatrick said. "If that can't happen, let's close it and put some houses up." Besides securing the dollars and convincing an airline that the site could draw passengers, Kilpatrick would face an additional hurdle in gaining the support of Warren, Grosse Pointe and east-side residents. Those groups successfully squashed the expansion for Southwest and have been vocal in opposing more aggressive changes since. Despite the hurdles, the airport's head was optimistic Tuesday. "It's a very difficult thing to do to sustain viable air service as it is now," Brown said. "Without a longer runway, you always come up against the issue. "I believe it's not pie in the sky at all. It will take a commitment for us to do it. We can accomplish it." City Airport carriers Since 1975, at least 11 carriers started passenger service at City Airport only to suspend operations, many citing the lack of passengers. Air carriers Time of Service Southwest Airlines 1988-1993 North Coast Executive 1988-1990 Direct Air 1988-1990 Continental Express 1988-1991 Central State 1989-1990 Northwest Airlink 1985-1988 Wright Airlines 1975-1985 Comair 1987-1991 Air Alpha 1991 (6 months) USAir Express 1994-Jan. 1995 Pro Air 1997-2000 Attached Photo/Graphics: A passenger walks across the tarmac at City Airport. Efforts to transform the site from a general aviation airport into a commercial facility have been unsuccessful. Since 1988, the city has invested $40 million in improvements at City Airport, including a $25-million runway expansion in 1988. Detroit City Airport Map.