DALLAS - A Lambert-St. Louis International Airport official says the city should soon know whether a one-year delay in the start of an expansion program will increase the cost of the $1.8 billion bond-financed project.
Consultants could report as early as next month whether the expected 1994 start will drive up the expansion's price tag, said Donald Aubuchon, assistant airport director of finance at St. Louis. Originally, work was to begin this year with completion set early in the next decade.
However, Aubuchon speculated that the $1.5 billion in revenue bonds authorized by voters in November 1991 would still be adequate to fund most of the project. The remainder would be financed with the airport's own on-hand resources, he said.
Although city officials had originally projected a bond sale by this year, they said this week that it is not clear when the first of the $1.5 billion debt program may be sold. The city plans to use general airport revenue bonds, which are not backed by the credit of St. Louis.
Asked if an additional voter authorization, required by Missouri law, might be needed, Aubuchon responded, "That's not in the cards at this point."
While Aubuchon agreed that delays often result in higher costs, he said consultants will study ways to contain those costs. Further, he did not rule out the possibility that parts of the original plan could be scrapped to save money.
Earlier this year, St. Louis officials decided to delay their expansion after Trans World Airlines, the airport's largest carrier, raised concerns over the plan. For instance, the bankrupt carrier questioned whether the airport would ever need to build a planned fourth runway.
Airline officials yesterday could not be reached for comment.
"We have promised to look into certain facets of changes they have raised," Aubuchon said.
That TWA should raise questions is not unusual. After, several quarters of losses, airlines are pressing airport operators nationwide to downscale capital spending in an effort to control costs that would affect the carriers' shrinking bottom lines.
TWA officials are not the only ones holding up the expansion plan. The Federal Aviation Administration, which must authorize the plan, has raised some issues.
And the Airline Pilots Association, a national union, has questioned the cost of the project and raised safety concerns. The pilots union has said it is troubled about the number of runways that airplanes would have to cross and the amount of space between runways.
But city officials have said that to address the pilots' concerns would raise the cost of the project to $3 billion.
At present, the city's plan calls for demolition of two existing runways and construction of up to four runways. The plan also calls for up to $400 million to build a new terminal, parking, and other facilities.
The expansion is expected to raise the number of gates to 199, increasing the operational capacity of the facility by one-third and reducing delays by the same level.
The expected one-year delay in starting the project is not the first. In 1992, TWA filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection from its creditors, effectively stalling plans by the city to sell bonds until the carrier emerges from federal court.
TWA faces a July 15 court date concerning its planned reorganization, but it is not yet certain when the airline will emerge from bankruptcy. While the financial strength of a carrier is a credit factor for an airport, TWA's bankruptcy has not affected the outstanding debt of St. Louis because those bonds are insured.
However, Adam Whiteman, vice president and head of the airport specialty group at Moody's Investors Service, said the TWA bankruptcy is a concern because the carrier accounts for about 80% of all traffic. Still, the St. Louis market is likely to remain strong regardless of which airline serves the city, Whiteman said.
"For a hubbing airline, St. Louis is not a bad location given the eastwest traffic," Whiteman said.