When Raleigh-Durham International Airport embarked on its $2.7 billion “Vision 2040” master plan in 2015, its facilities were actually the newest they had been in decades.
Terminal 2, the main terminal at the airport, had been completed in 2011 at the cost of $570 million. The new 900,000-square-foot terminal featured designs from Fentress Architects and The Freelon Group. It had high undulating ceilings of beams made of Douglas firs, abundant natural light, a layout that was easy to navigate, and connections for travelers with laptops. It was the most modern terminal the airport had had in a long time.
Terminal 1, the old “blue box,” as it was known, also had just finished renovating in 2014.
Far from being dilapidated and spent, the RDU’s facilities in early 2015 were the newest they had been for decades. It was the culmination of the work of the airport’s 1994 master plan.
So the question is: Why did RDU officials insist on doing a new master plan at all when its facilities were mostly new?
Actually, Raleigh-Durham International Airport’s $2.7 billion “Vision 2040” is for a date set so far in the future that it’s absurd.
Planning for the year 2040, from the vantage point of 2015 — 25 years into the future. This does not make sense. Were people in 1975 able to plan for the year 2000 in any meaningful way? Not only that, but the U.S. is currently in such political and economic chaos, that most people can’t even plan past the next presidential election.
From start to finish, RDU’s “Vision 2040” planned during times when people, especially young people, were the least able to provide input. The airport’s facilities were still so new in 2015, that most people would not have even had this on their radar. RDU’s board approved this plan in October 2016, right before the election that year. How many people could have been paying attention? Then, the Federal Aviation Administration approved this plan in December 2017, again, during a politically intense time. Even if people had objections and criticisms, it would have been difficult to speak up.
What’s also most telling about RDU’s approach is the way it went about leasing the 105-acre Odd Fellows tract for use as a quarry. The announcement last March came suddenly and has become a protracted battle in the court system. But, if RDU needs $2.7 billion for its master plan, then $24 million the airport will get from the quarry over 35 years will go little toward meeting its goals. (To put this in perspective, RDU received $53.8 million in capital contributions last year for its master plan.)
But the airport seems completely willing to wreck that natural area forever, for local residents currently and future generations to come.
Over and over, RDU’s plan and its actions show an organization more interested in managing the future than meeting the real, current needs of its customers.
What is the “Vision 2040” master plan?
RDU’s 1,885-page master plan is vague on exactly what it wants to do. Much of it is an inventory of existing conditions at RDU — useful for anyone wondering what the airport needs now that it’s operating with two terminals that are almost brand new.
Instead, RDU has let information about what it wants to do out in a trickle.
It wants to expand Terminal 2, and the details of that remain to be seen. In January, it moved several airlines to Terminal 1 in a bid to expand that terminal, which is estimated to cost $500 million. That move was met with objections by the Umstead Coalition for violating RDU’s own master plan by locating the expanded gates on the side close to Umstead Park. A year ago, in January 2019, RDU announced that it wants to build a 11,500-foot runway, which would cost $350 million. In August 2019, the announcement was that the airport wants to build a new rental car facility, again for $500 million. When the airport has butted heads with Umstead Coalition and local residents, it has pointed to the need to put up “No Trespassing” signs to protect property it wants to use for its master plan.
But nothing about RDU’s “Vision 2040” makes sense when you look at it on the whole. There seems to be no specific vision.
For instance, RDU wants a massive $500 million consolidated rental car facility. (To put that into perspective, it cost $570 million to raze an old terminal and build the new Terminal 2.) At the same time, RDU wants 10,000 new parking spaces.
So, is RDU officials’ thinking that in the future, people will want to rent cars to get to their destinations, and will have such an urgent need that they will want immediate access from Terminal 2 into a six-story-tall garage only for rental cars? Or is it forecasting that people will want to drive themselves?
And, why is RDU ignoring the popularity of Ubers in recent years, as well as local taxi companies? And why is RDU forgetting that people in North Carolina have more of a habit of relying on family and friends to drop them off? Rental cars are probably the least urgent need among local residents.
Urgent needs for the airport?
RDU officials have sold the narrative that the changes outlined in the “Vision 2040” master plan are urgent or desirable needs for the airport. They are not.
“Our rapid growth is driving new construction projects throughout campus to meet customer demands and build for the future,” said Michael Landguth, president of RDU, on its web site in January, touting new construction.
That announcement by Landguth came shortly after the airport came under fire by the Umstead Coalition, the nonprofit that preserves Umstead Park, for wanting to build a 8-foot-tall barbed wire fence that would cut through state park trails.
RDU officials and others also cite the increase in the passenger numbers as the key reason for the urgent need for build-outs at the airport.
But when RDU embarked on “Vision 2040” in 2015, the number of passengers who went through the airport that year was still below 2000 and 2007, and about the same as in 1992.
According to the FAA, in 2015, the number of passengers at RDU was 9,943,331. In 1992, it was 9,925,364.
Since then, the number of passengers has made a fast climb, to 14.2 million in 2019.
But is that growth that the airport can absorb with existing facilities? Although RDU experienced a boom in the 1980s, when passenger totals increased from 2.7 million to 9.2 million, the master plan during that time was not done until 1994.
And is the growth RDU has had in recent years even, well — real?
This past fall, RDU lost two direct flights to the West Coast, which indicates that the growth the airport is experiencing is not based on business, but more leisure. Some of RDU’s growth has come from the popularity of flights by Frontier, the Denver-based low-budget airline. A round-trip ticket to Los Angeles? Just $93.
But even Frontier pulled its direct flight from RDU to San Diego last fall.
When RDU has wanted to tout its plans, it has pointed to growth from China. RDU’s plans for a new runway, to attract nonstop flights to China, was picked up by The News & Observer in January 2019 for a flashy headline touting a “10,000 foot runway.” (Actually, the new runway would be 11,500 feet. The existing main runway is already 10,000 feet.)
Speaking with The Duke Chronicle in February 2019, Landguth said,”China wants to travel,” he said. “By 2040, they will be traveling four times more than the United States.”
But common sense and knowledge of human nature says that Chinese citizens, like everyone else, do not know what they want by the year 2040.
Wait, RDU needs $4 billion?
In January, Regional Transportation Alliance, a program of the Raleigh Chamber of Commerce that advocates for companies on transportation issues, under the leadership of CEO Joe Milazzo released a paper that states RDU has high growth based on passenger levels in recent years. Therefore, the airport will need $4 billion for its master plan, instead of the originally projected $2.7 billion.
The papers for those findings are titled, amazingly, “Our sky could fall.” A tone of urgency runs throughout.
“There is no single ‘magic’ answer,” RTA states, “and we have a limited and shrinking period of time for all stakeholders – including, but not limited to, the four government owners, the airlines serving RDU, and business and leisure air travelers – to come up with a way to ensure the long term viability of RDU.”
However, the fact that RDU lost flights to the West Coast last fall, along with the expected drop in passenger levels because of the coronavirus, indicate that the growth the airport is experiencing is not sustainable, nor does it need such a massive fundraising rollout.
RDU also still has debt on its books for the two new terminals, which cost $638 million in total.
According to its financial statements for fiscal year 2018-2019, the airport still owed $508.6 million in bonds it took out. During that year, it paid $22.7 million toward that debt. The total interest on those bonds was $9.5 million.
RDU posted $44.6 million in income that year, and $53.8 million in capital contributions, mainly from federal and state funds related to its master plan.
Maybe instead of doing a $2.7 billion master plan – or a $4 billion master plan – RDU could pay back more of its debt first.
The profits from these temporary, inflated “boom” years of high passenger numbers could have been put toward that. Instead, RDU has been busy planning for a vision that makes no sense, ignoring the real needs of its customers, as well as fighting with local residents — its own customers — over a quarry that would pay little toward what the airport says it needs. Worst of all, this plan could lock down generations of young people to RDU’s “vision” for most of our adult lives.
If this master plan is implemented fully, generations of people, and especially the younger generations, will have to live with the mistaken vision of people in 2017. By 2040, the board and leadership will be retired. The oldest Millennials will be about 60 years old in 2040, close to retirement age. So for all of Millennials’ prime adult years, because of the poor timing and the way RDU went about this master plan, we will have no say whatsoever in one of the biggest infrastructure uses and needs of this community.
And for Centennials, the generation after Millennials, they will grow up to do only the work that was laid out for them in 2017, when they were teens.
By the time this master plan is fully executed, the people who came up with it will be retired and they will not be liable for the mistakes they make. Meanwhile, the younger generations will be saddled with a plan that will not suit our needs, and we will also have to pay the bill.
It’s too nice to call RDU’s master plan “absurd.” This plan should have never happened at all.