Sacramento’s Big Build Will Create a Monstrously Expensive New Terminal

Flying through Sacramento last week, I couldn’t help but notice the stark contrast between the old terminal buildings and the new one that’s slowly taking shape, towering over the surrounding area. The humble, old terminals look like shacks compared to the monster they’re building. This is going to be one expensive terminal project, and you know how I feel about that.

Right now, there are two terminals in Sacramento. The oldest is the 13-gate Terminal B. Terminal A was built in a similar style in the early 1990s to add another 13 gates. Here’s the lay of the land:

New Sacramento Airport

The old Terminal B will be toast as soon as the monstrous new Terminal B gets built. That in itself is a good thing. I actually like the retro look and feel of the terminal, but it is hardly adequate for an airport today. Check out this front view of the high B terminal facade where JetBlue flies.

Old Terminal B SMF

Kind of cool, right? But it’s not exactly the most functional building around. The small lobby where JetBlue lives has JetBlue and Continental employees shoe-horned into a tiny ticketing area. That’s actually right behind the baggage claim, as strange as it sounds. Then there’s an enormously large open area flanked by the small Horizon Air ticket counter. After checking in, you go upstairs to a very small security area which undoubtedly is under-sized and not ideal for TSA operations.

Once you get behind security, you see a relatively short concourse. It isn’t connected to the other B concourse, so transferring between the two appears to require leaving one secure area and then going back through to the other side. The concourse is small and awkwardly arranged. I love it. But that’s only because I like the old-school retro feeling you get in a place like this. I mean, check out this gate sign.

Retro Terminal B SMF

But having gone through this terminal, there’s little doubt in my mind that it should go away. The question is, how do you fix the problem? The plans that were put together were ambitious to say the least. Sacramento used to be a cheap place to fly. As recently as a couple years ago, cost per enplanement was in the $5 range. That’s cheap. But after building new rental car facilities and parking garages among other things, costs have started to rise. In the fiscal year that just ended, cost per enplanement is expected to come out to $11.65. That’s expensive but not horrendous. After the new terminal is built, cost per enplanement will balloon to $17.75. That will be the peak cost in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2013. That is horrendous.

Airlines had been vocal about not being happy about the project. I remembered that Southwest was really pissed, so I asked for comment. A spokesman told me:

Naturally, anything that might increase our costs is a concern for us. That said, they are moving forward with the project, and therefore we’ll continue to work with the airport to see how we can best operate in the most cost efficient way.

In other words, “we didn’t like it, but they’re building it anyway. Now we have to figure out what works and what doesn’t.” This is bound to hurt traffic levels at the airport, though a spokeswoman from Sacramento Airport said that no airlines have suggested they’ll cut back service. We’ll see about that. My guess is some traffic has already suffered from the creeping costs.

The project was trimmed a little bit, but I’m talking very little. They scrapped the in-airport hotel and another parking garage for now. Yet even without that, the cost will be over $1 billion. (It was going to top out at $1.3 billion.) What are they building? Well, here’s what they’ve built so far:

New SMF Terminal Takes Shape

It towers over the current Terminal B and it will have a lot of light and open area. The concourse will grow from the current 13 gates to 19 and it will be connected by a people mover to the main terminal. Here’s a mock-up of the landside part of the terminal.

New Sacramento Terminal

This seems extravagant to me. It also looks like they’re trying to set a world record for the number of escalators in a building. If it looks familiar, it should. This has been designed by Fentress Architects, the same people who brought you Denver International Airport (or as Holly Hegeman used to call it, Senor Peña’s Palace of Planes) and the overgrown new Bradley Terminal concourse at LAX.

Many have questioned why the airport even needs to build such a large new addition when traffic hasn’t grown in years. In 2009, 8,914,510 passengers used the airport. That was down 10 percent from 2008. Going all the way back to 2004, the airport had 9.5 million, so it’s not even back at 2004 levels yet. And it’s not like things look good for the future either.

This is a city that runs on state government, and massive government cuts are constantly in the works. The dysfunction of our government in California is legendary, and I don’t anticipate seeing much growth for years to come.

The project looks nice, of course, but it seems entirely too expensive. My guess is airline service will suffer.

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