Pittsburgh International Airport's $1.1B project prepares for takeoff
Allegheny County Airport Authority officials on Tuesday announced a proposed $1.1 billion overhaul that includes building a new landside terminal attached to Pittsburgh International Airport's existing airside terminal, eliminating a tram between the two facilities and opening up more space for private developers.
The current landside terminal could be redeveloped or torn down, while the airside terminal would be renovated and redesigned to provide 51 gates for airlines — about a dozen more than are being used today. The existing terminals are 25 years old.
"This facility was built as a connecting hub for an airline (US Airways) that doesn't exist. Now we have an opportunity to make it ours," said Allegheny County Airport Authority CEO Christina Cassotis.
Authority officials say the project is necessary to replace outdated facilities that don't fit current needs and are too costly to maintain. The proposed project is expected to reduce operating and maintenance costs by $23 million a year.
A new, expanded security checkpoint would shorten the time that passengers spend in line waiting to get to their flights, while a new baggage system would reduce the time they wait for their bags after a flight, officials said.
"This project will be a huge boost to the region, both in terms of what a revamped facility means and also the number of jobs that will be created by this project," Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said. "This announcement is coming at a key time for both the airport and this region."
Construction of the new, single-story landside terminal between the airside terminal's C and D concourses is expected to start in 2019 and be completed in 2023, Cassotis said. The current landside terminal would remain open until then.
The project would not be funded by local tax dollars such as municipal, real estate or other taxes provided by Allegheny County or its municipalities, Fitzgerald said.
Bond money would be used to finance most of the project costs. Revenue from airport parking, concessions and retail sales also would be used, along with revenue from Consol Energy's Marcellus shale gas drilling operations on airport land, Cassotis said.
Seventy-five percent of the debt used to build the current airport is scheduled to be paid off next year, freeing up the authority's ability to borrow money for the proposed project, Cassotis said.
Too much space
The existing airport opened 25 years ago. It was built largely to the specifications of the former US Airways, then one of the nation's most profitable airlines. The county's former Department of Aviation, the forerunner to the airport authority, borrowed more than $900 million to pay for that project and the authority continues to make related debt payments.
US Airways' fortunes changed in the early 2000s, and it closed its Pittsburgh hub in 2004. More than 500 daily flights and 10,000 jobs vanished during a period of upheaval. At one point, the authority walled off the far ends of two unused concourses to cut maintenance and utility costs. Annual traffic that approached nearly 21 million passengers in the early years of the airport dipped below 8 million as recently as 2014, records show.
Traffic is rebounding. It reached about 8.3 million passengers last year and was up about 6 percent through the first six months of this year.
But still, 36 of the airport's 75 gates and five of its baggage belts typically go unused on a daily basis.
"The airport was built 25 years ago for an application that's no longer valid. Pittsburgh is no longer a large hub airport," said Mike Boyd, a Colorado-based airline industry consultant. "You have to invest money to make the airport work for the future. This shows rational thinking. If you're going to do something, do it right."
Based on early conceptual designs for the proposed project, the tram between the existing airside and landside terminals would no longer be used, Cassotis said. The baggage delivery system that carries luggage between the terminals on conveyor belts also would also be eliminated.
The project also calls for a new roadway system and a new parking garage, Cassotis said.
The authority predicts that more than 5,000 people would work on the project during construction, and the project would have a direct and indirect economic impact of nearly $1.7 billion.
Airport leaders have not yet decided the fate of the current landside terminal.
"We could either be very interested in seeing if a developer is interesting in using this building and rehabbing it ... or it could come down," Cassotis said.
Tearing down the existing landside terminal is projected to cost about $20 million, officials estimated.
"There will be more land opened up for development. We heard there are people looking," said Cassotis, giving a nod to online retail giant Amazon, which is looking for a place for its sought-after second headquarters.
One hurdle for Amazon choosing Pittsburgh is the lack of a nonstop flight to Seattle. If Amazon chose Pittsburgh, nonstop service to Seattle could easily be added, Cassotis said, but the airport would like to have it before then.
"I think this is the kind of forward-thinking initiative Amazon will be looking for," Fitzgerald said. "This announcement today, a month before we're going to be submitting our proposal, is perfectly aligned with what we'd like to see."
Other options considered include renovating the existing landside and airside terminals and building a new airside terminal.
Airport and airline officials felt the chosen option would be more cost-effective in the long run and better meet the needs of airlines and passengers, Cassotis said.
Allegheny County Airport Authority board members voted unanimously Tuesday to move forward with the chosen alternative.
Airport officials did not invite the public to weigh in on the alternatives beforehand because it was more important that the airlines sign off, Cassotis said.
"The airlines are paying for this, so it has to work for the airlines," Cassotis said. "In terms of whether we keep the facility or how many gates, that really needs to be left to us and the airlines. Now that we've made a decision on what the footprint will be, we can go to the community and say, 'What kind of features should be here? What else could we include?' "
Public meetings will be held in Allegheny County for people to provide that type of feedback, Cassotis said. Other nearby counties can request similar meetings.
The project would require Federal Aviation Administration approval before it can move forward.
The airport authority is paying Chicago-based consultant Ricondo & Associates Inc. $7.6 million to develop the master plan, according to airport spokesman Bob Kerlik.
For more information, visit PITtransformed.com .
Theresa Clift is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-5669, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @tclift.