New Orleans airport to choose consultant today

Posted on: February 1 2012
January 31, 2012

By Michelle Krupa, The Times-Picayune

New Orleans officials Wednesday are slated to choose the first of five consultants whose work would serve as a blueprint for overhauling oft-derided Louis Armstrong International Airport, which Mayor Mitch Landrieu last summer said he plans to transform into a "world-class" airport. Airport officials and top Landrieu aides in August suggested two plans that could satisfy the mayor's wish: expanding the existing airfield by adding new terminals to the west, or constructing a new main terminal on airport-owned property between the current airport and Interstate 10, adjacent to dense Kenner neighborhoods.

airport-terminal-2008.jpgView full sizeTimes-Picayune archiveUnder one scenario, the Louis Armstrong International Airport terminal would be converted into a cargo station.

Though both alternatives remain on the table, city and airport officials seem to be leaning toward the second option.

During an hourlong presentation Tuesday to the City Council's airport committee, Aviation Director Iftikhar Ahmad rolled out a sophisticated presentation that showed a new passenger terminal along Veterans Memorial Boulevard.

A short animated video took viewers on a simulated flight down the Mississippi River, through downtown New Orleans and into Metairie, and showed the current terminal converted into a cargo station.

Besides highlighting rail and highway access to the site, the video featured arrows indicating the potential movement of goods from the stretch of river nearest the airport to the converted terminal -- apparently through residential areas.

Though Ahmad emphasized the clip aimed to offer only one of many options industry experts might suggest, he said after the meeting that increasing cargo traffic could generate revenue to finance the construction of passenger facilities.

"If we could do intermodal, we could attract some more business here," he said. "There are hundreds of millions of tons of goods coming to the Port of New Orleans. Can I take 1 million tons and send it out through aviation?

"I bet I would make more money than Gary LaGrange," Ahmed said, referring to the port president. "And federal law ... mandates that I must spend that money at that airport, and what that creates is opportunities."

Landrieu's top aide, Andy Kopplin, last summer touted a new terminal as the more affordable choice because construction would occur outside the existing flight security zone. He also noted the potential lucrative reuse of the current terminal, possibly as a cargo transit hub.

Airport officials today are expected to choose from among four firms competing to serve as project manager for a broad analysis of the two options, which were laid out in the airport's long-term strategic plan long before Landrieu expressed his support.

The management firm would oversee other consultants that would handle architectural design, environmental assessment, land-use and development and a financial feasibility study, Ahmad told council members.

Together, the contracts are expected to cost $7.5 million and to all be awarded by May, he said, adding that completion of the work is hard to peg because environmental evaluations could delay the planning process from six to 18 months.

Ahmad has estimated that a new airport, or a significantly renovated one, could cost more than $1 billion, with financing coming from a patchwork of federal money, local airline fees and other sources -- but almost certainly not a local fee or tax that would affect residents who don't use the airport.

While supporting the concept of an improved Louis Armstrong International, Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell emphasized that airport officials must figure out how to pay for the project themselves.

"The public has reached a saturation point on government asking for money," she said.

Aviation Board Chairman Nolan Rollins sounded a similar theme. In soliciting firms to analyze the options, he said a key question the board wants answered is, "How do we make sure these costs aren't passed on to the general public?"