Denver Builds New Airport, Asks, `Will Planes Come?'

CALLED simply DIA - short for Denver International Airport, the monolith sits, unopened, amid the prairie and pronghorn northeast of town. But to critics, DIA stands for Done In Awhile, or Done in August (you pick the year), or just plain Moby Dick.

One of the world's largest public-works projects, it is supposed to be a seminal development in the Rocky Mountain West. The latest delay in the opening of the new facility, however, has turned into something of a Saturday Night Live skit here. One local fast-food chain is even running radio spots that says it will be opening several new outlets this summer - on time, unlike the airport.

Yet behind all the humor, as dark as some of it is, lurk enduring questions over the finances and long-term impact of the nation's first major airport to be built in 20 years.

Critics see the latest snafu as symptomatic of a project that was ill-conceived and could possibly go bust within two years. Boosters - including bankers, politicians, and civic leaders - argue that the latest problems are not unusual for a project of this magnitude. They view the airport as sort of a modern transcontinental railroad - something that will lift the entire region but that people need to think about in geologic time.

As United States Transportation Secretary Federico Pena, the former mayor of Denver and the man perhaps most identified with the project, recently put it: The airport ``isn't being built for 1994. It's being built for the next 50 or 60 years.''

Some people hold opinions in between these two views, but they seem to be as scarce as good airline food.

``Transportation development in Western history has always been the source of controversy and recriminations and doubts about whether it would pay off,'' says Patricia Nelson Limerick, a historian at the University of Colorado in Boulder. ``This is chapter 712 in that complicated emotional history.''

Latest mishap

The latest missed opening, May 15, has proved expensive as well as embarrassing to the city, costing about $1 million a day. About half the tab is being picked up by the city and the rest by the airlines - mainly United Airlines, the principal carrier here.

The money goes for operating Stapleton Airport, which DIA is to replace, as well as for maintaining the new airfield and making payments on the bonds sold to build it. Originally estimated at $1.7 billion, DIA, sprawling over an area twice the size of Manhattan, is now believed to cost closer to $3.7 billion.

No one knows when the facility's five huge runways, arranged in pinwheel fashion around the terminal, will open.

Last week, officials with BAE Automated Systems Inc., the Dallas-based firm that designed the troubled baggage system - the root of current delays - said they were reasonably close to putting the current ``discomfort behind us.''

The $193-million system - a gee-whiz amalgam of photocells, computers, and track-borne ``telecars'' that promises to deliver luggage three times faster than conventional methods - has a problem with its software. The city has hired two consulting firms to help. City officials have no intention of setting another start-up date until everything is fixed, a prudence born of four missed deadlines already. The most anybody will say is that an opening date might be announced in late July.

Once the facility is open, boosters expect it to live up to its promise - over time. Their optimism is rooted in the belief that air traffic will continue to grow in the US while the amount of runway space will be limited. They note that most major airports are operating at or near capacity, with no new major fields planned.

Proponents believe Colorado is strategically located for international trade and transportation - somewhat in the middle of the US, and halfway between Europe and Asia, halfway between Canada and Mexico. Some area economists estimate that DIA will help create 50,000 to 75,000 jobs over 20 years.

Supporters say DIA will be safer and more efficient, allowing three aircraft to land at once - so it won't tie-up the nation's air transportation system during foul weather, as staid Stapleton does. ``It is really setting up the area for the future,'' says Kristi Corash, chief economist for the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce.

Field of dreams?

To critics, just because you build it, that doesn't mean the planes will come.

Michael Boyd, a Golden, Colo.-based airport consultant, notes that airlines make decisions on where to operate based on cost, not on fancy facilities. He and others think DIA will prove too expensive for many carriers. Skeptics say regulatory and other constraints make Denver unlikely to become another international hub, like Atlanta.

Many Denverites have more mundane concerns - such as the additional cab fares it will take to get to DIA, which is 20 miles farther out than Stapleton. Indeed, Coloradans seem to love or loathe almost everything about the new facility, from the signature tepee-topped main terminal to the marble flooring and the public artworks.

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