DALLAS -- St. Louis voters will decide Nov. 5 whether the city will undertake a $1.5 billion bond program to finance expansion of the city's airport -- its largest and first proposal on airport financing since 1968.
Donald Aubuchon, assistant airport director for finance for Lambert-St. Louis International Airport, said that if voters approve the revenue bond program and the Federal Aviation Administration approves the project, the city could try to sell the first series of bonds next summer.
Airport officials said they had not yet decided when they might hire a financial adviser or when an underwriting team might be assembled.
"We've spent about $200 million for expansion and replacement over the last 10 years," he said. "But this will be our largest ever."
While many city officials around th nation seek advisory referendums of support before launching an airport expansion, Missour law requires a simple majority of St. Louis city votes to support the plan.
"Seeking a vote is not a political play in any way," said Mr. Aubuchon. "It's a egal requirement."
The FAA Could decide as early as September on whether to approve the expansion plan. By scheduling a late fall election, Mr. Aubuchon said the project would be ready to go to the credit markets no later than 1993.
However, St. Louis Deputy Comptroller Z. Dwight Billingsley also said the first series of airport revenue bonds could be sold next summer if voters approve -- as he believes they will.
"No revenue bond for the airport has ever received less than 70% approval from voters," he said.
Even though it has been 23 years since St. Louis voters were last asked to vote an airport financing, few expect opposition to the airport financing since the cost will not come directly from local taxpayers.
Mr. Billingsley expects a group of residents in Bridgeton, Mo., who oppose the expansion -- which would displace hundreds of home owners -- to campaign against the measure with a group known as Bridgeton Air Defense.
While specifics of the financing plan have yet to be worked out, he said future debt will be secured with airport revenues now being used to retire a remaining $242 million of outstanding revenue bonds.
Also, the airport expects to secure some of its debt with the new $3 airport passenger facility charge, which is expected to generate $27 million annually with current enplanements at Lambert Field -- as the airport is commonly known. The airport has to apply to the FAA for permission to use the facility charge to back the bonds.
Analysts at Moody's Investors Service and Standard & Poor's Corp. declined to comment on the expansion plan. The outstanding debt of St. Louis airport is rated triple-A, because it carries bond insurance, Mr. Aubuchon said.
Moody's said that it gave the last airport stand-alone bonds an A rating in 1983.
The bond program will finance the reconfiguration of airport runways, including the addition of a new one. Because existing parallel runways are 1,300 feet apart, the airport is often restricted to only using one primary runway at a time.
Bernard Hartman, head of planning at Lambert, said those improvements could increase overall capacity by one-third while reducing delays by the same level.
He said the plan also calls for a doubling of parking spaces and the terminal to increase the number of gates to 119 from 76.
To do this, the airport will complete a decade-old buyout of negihboring properties to include up to 900 residential homes and about 25 businesses in Bridgeton -- where the airport is located.
Beyond local opposition, the airport expansion also faces instability in the airline industry. Trans World Airlines accounts for 75% of all flights at Lambert, but the carrier has missed corporate debt payments and has sold off once key European routes.
Mr. Aubuchon said that because of the low debt, the airport expects to remain competitive and able to attract other airlines. Its landing fee of $1.07 per thousand pounds is considered average among the nation's largest airports.
"In our conversations, other airlines have said that if anything happens to TWA, they would move in quickly," he said.