Denver's Castle in the Air

January 01, 1994  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  Transport

Not to diminish the importance of the Whitewater investigation, but reporters looking for evidence of a massive Clinton scandal need look no further than the appointment of Federico Peña to the position of Secretary of Transportation and the business of Mr. Peña’s handling of Denver International Airport.

This airport is now locally — though not yet nationally — known as Federico’s Folly.

Both Mr. Peña and President Clinton cited his efforts, as mayor of Denver, to build the airport as a factor in the appointment to the Department of Transportation. In his speech nominating his choice for transportation secretary, Mr. Clinton said, "His legacy includes the new Denver International Airport, which I believe will be the largest in this country by a good ways."

Mr. Peña’s explanation was that Denver’s investments paid off. "I believe that’s the reason for [my] being asked to do this."

All of Peña’s promises just flew away.

But the city’s investments under Mr. Peña have been one huge flop after another, with the biggest by far being the airport, the opening for which was delayed again this month, until at least February of next year — almost a year and a half after being scheduled to open. In practically every way DIA will be worse than the perfectly serviceable airport it will replace.

The explanation for this monstrosity is a series of Federico Fibs, aided and abetted by the two local newspapers and a populace that, initially at any rate, bought into Mr. Peña’s Mussoliniesque exhortations that "Denver is poised forgreatness," and the airport, the nation’s largest public works project, was the way to accomplish it.

Federico Fib One was that flight delays at Stapleton were, in Mr. Peña’s words, "an embarrassing bottleneck, both in our national transportation system and our ability to have an efficiently run airport to build a strong, stable economy."

Actually, Stapleton’s flight delay record in years just prior to the building of the airport was among the best in the nation. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, in the year the airport was submitted to a referendum, 1989, Stapleton had 27 flight operations per 1,000 which were delayed 15 minutes or more. By comparison, Chicago O’Hare had 88, Newark 98, and LaGuardia 115.

Federico Fib Two was that Stapleton could no longer keep up with increasing demand. But passenger use was actually declining at the time and was 20 percent below its high point. Further, the airport had just concluded an expansion, adding a new runway and a new concourse. It was this new runway that had greatly reduced Stapleton’s flight delays. Yet another runway was planned, but Mr. Peña blocked it.

Ironically, for all the talk of the world’s second largest airport, the lack of traffic has resulted in DIA having far fewer gates than Stapleton did. Indeed, the claim of second-largest was never much more than an ego stroke, referring neither to structure size nor capacity but merely to the acreage of land surrounding the facility. For a similar effect, one could put a refrigerator and stove into an otherwise empty convention center and declare it the world’s largest kitchen. In practical terms, far from being the second-largest airport in the world, DIA will be the second largest in Denver.

Federico Fib Three was that the new airport would be essentially cost-free to Denverites. In terms of taxes, there has been little expenditure — so far. The airport is being funded through bond sales. But DIA will nonetheless cost any Denverite using the airport a small fortune.

The airport is much further out than Stapleton, increasing the distance from almost any point in the metro area by 15 to 20 minutes. Cab fare, currently $11 from downtown, will increase to about $40. Denverites trying to save cab fare by driving (via Peña Boulevard, no less) will probably find the "cheap" parking at DIA will be $10, compared to $4 at Stapleton and $7 at big-city airports like Los Angeles International.

As such, DIA will tie with Washington’s Dulles as being the most hard-to-reach airport in the nation. But while Washingtonians have the option of using the closer National Airport, Denverites or visitors to Denver will have none.

Federico Fib Four was the cost of the airport, originally budgeted and approved by voters at $1.7 billion, it is now coming in at more than twice that, $4.2 billion. This despite a considerable downsizing from the original plan. Like a car dealer quoting a price that doesn’t happen to include an engine or transmission, Mr. Peña kept paper costs low by keeping off budget "incidentals" like the land for airport and the almost $300 million baggage-handling system, and by mandating a construction schedule that was impossible to keep. Although the baggage handling system has gotten all the blame lately, the airport actually suffered numerous major defects long after it was slated to open. The handling system wasn’t even mentioned when reasons were given for the first two delays.

Yet for all this, the greatest problem with DIA is that it will be so much more expensive to run that landing fees will almost triple. This fee applies to persons going to or from the city or simply using the airport as a transfer point. The result is ticket price increases for everybody, so much so that Continental Airlines is pulling many of its flights, wiping out the healthy United-Continental competition.

Thus, not only will Denverites find that they can no longer fly to some destinations but that the ones they can still get to are probably going to cost a lot more — as much as 60 percent. This will significantly reduce use of the airport, causing the landing fees to go even higher in a vicious cycle.

At best, everyone simply pays a lot more money for nothing. At worst, the airport fails its bond obligations. Already, one rating firm has looked at the $33 million the airport will be losing each month until it finally opens and has dropped the DIA bonds to "junk" level.

If President Clinton is truly sincere about distancing himself from scandal, the first thing he should do is to send Mr. Peña packing. But have a little mercy, Mr. President, and don’t turn him over to the citizens of Denver.