Real question: Will DIA work?

Denver International Airport is suddenly national news. It’s late opening. At $3 billion and counting, it’s over budget. The high-tech baggage system isn’t working. Surface transportation to the new facility is inadequate. Questions are being raised about financial and project management. And with its progenitor sitting as US transpotation secretary, the land sharks are circling.

But let’s separate the wheat from the chaff. Surely the decision to delay the opening was correct. DIA will have only one chance to make a first impression. When it does open in May — or whenever — it should work. It should not merely pass FAA-required safety checks. It should be user-friendly — everything from signage to baggage handling.

Second, most of the problems getting headlines are fixable problems. Armchair quarterbacks say they should have been fixed long ago or should have been avoided altogether. But remember: DIA is the nation’s largest public works project. Blunders, missteps, glitches and cost overruns are normal for mega-projects. Think about the Panama Canal or the English Channel Tunnel.

Very few remember that the Aleyska Pipeline, which has carried billions of barrels of oil from Prudhoe Bay on Alaska’s North Slope to tanker terminals in Valdez, was four years late and 10 times over budget — from an estimated cost of $800 million to an actual cost of $8 billion. Reason: The Aleyska Pipeline works. If projects work the way they are supposed to, it doesn’t matter much if they are late and cost more than expected.

The real question for DIA is, “Will it work?” First, will DIA work for Denver’s origin and destination traffic? Some say, “The airport’s a reality. We have to make it work.” But that will not be the view of the airport’s customers — the traveling public and airlines. Consumers do what is convenient and find ways around things that are too expensive or inconvenient. Will travelers in Denver’s Southeast suburbs, disadvantaged by DIA’s location, migrate to Colorado Springs’ airport — or lobby to open a regional airport, such as Centennial? Will skiers find it more convenient to fly directly to a regional airport in the Colorado mountains — or to “Ski Utah” because of its close-to-the slopes Salt Lake City airport? Making sure DIA works for Denver travelers is a major challenge that deserves public attention.

Second, will DIA work as a hub? Many experts say it will. But what happens if the long runway isn’t built or airline industry restructuring leads to more short-haul aircraft and regional airports? Making sure DIA does not become the Maginot Line of air transportation is too important to be left to the experts.

Third, will DIA work financially? Southwestern says DIA is too costly and will continue to connect to Colorado through Colorado Springs. Continental is backing away and has the option of new and convenient hub facilties in Phoenix. Are costs making DIA too expensive for the airlines to use? Can DIA pay the mortgage without taxpayer subsidies?

These are issues that should be addressed by people who will be left holding the bag if things don’t work out as planned. Shouldn’t a taxpayers council, independent of the politicians and hired-gun experts who have painted the picture so far, examine facts that illuminate the truly important issues — issues that could affect everything from Colorado’s image to taxpayer liabilities? It’s a thought.

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