There’s a quaint sleepiness to Kahului Airport that’s undeniable to even the most hardened air traveler. Sure, finding a parking space can take a few minutes, and require a few minutes walk, there’s often a line at ticketing and getting through the TSA choke point can be a major pain, but once a prospective passenger is through and riding the escalator up to the terminal, there’s nothing but wide open space ahead.
For those arriving on island, the terminal is simple, straightforward and not the least bit daunting. In many ways, the small but not cramped terminal is a great way for visitors to decompress after their flight.
Now, all that may be changing. There’s a new airport access road coming soon to Kahului. Then, over the next few decades, construction crews will extend the airport’s Runway 2-20 from 7,000 to 9,600 feet and Runway 5-23 from 5,000 to 7,000 feet. They’ll also add more gates and greatly expand the terminal, move all commuter parking and create a new, consolidated rental car center that’s more or less where the current airport offices sit.
If all this sounds familiar, it’s because the state talked about expanding the airport back in the 1980s and ‘90s. It was incredibly controversial and divisive, with a coalition of residents rising up over the proposal’s possible impact on nearby wildlife (Kanaha Pond sits next to the airport) as well as increased noise and pollution–issues that will certainly arise again. For instance, during a May 1996 hearing on the airport environmental impact report, 55 people spoke out against the expansion plans while just six supported it, according to Mansel Blackford’s 2001 book Fragile Paradise. The state eventually dumped the expansion plan in 2000, but only because funding dried up.
In fact, air travel demand never really exploded on Maui the way transportation officials were predicting 20 years ago. And though there’s still not really any air travel demand pushing for a new airport expansion, and state officials still admit they have no idea how they’d pay for such work, the odds are actually pretty strong that it’s going to happen this time.
Construction is scheduled to start in 2014, and run for the next 20 years (and beyond, perhaps). Because extending Runway 5-23 will consume the current cluster of rental car companies, they will have to move first, which will necessitate moving commuter parking. Only then, in 2015 or so, can the runway extensions begin. In 2025, relocating the commuter terminal and expansion of the main terminal and helicopter facility will take place. Post-2035 projects include realigning Hana Highway as it passes the airport and the possible construction of a new 8,500-foot runway.
This isn’t how it was supposed to be. “None of this was supposed to happen for six years,” said Dan Meisenzahl, spokesman for the state Department of Transportation. “But it just makes sense to do it now.”
The reason is that because the Federal Aviation Administration announced late last year that it would no longer pay for patchwork repairs to the airport’s runways, airport officials have to do a complete runway resurfacing. Since they’re going to be doing all that, the logic goes, you might as well move up the old airport expansion timetable and extend the runways to accommodate newer commercial airliners since the runway will be closed anyway and we don’t know when such an opportunity might arise again.
Of course, there is another option: simply close the runways for three months or so and do just the resurfacing.
“The legislative leadership from Maui [Representative Joe Souki and Senators J. Kalani English and Shan Tsutsui] are adamantly opposed to closing Runway 5-23,” said Dan Meisenzahl. “They will extend 5-23 because they can’t shut it down.”
To alleviate fears in Spreckelsville that the state would use the runway extensions to reorient the runway focus at the airport and launch airliners over the heads of homeowners in that wealthy enclave, Meisenzahl insisted that Runway 2-20–which points out over the ocean–would remain the airport’s primary runway. “But while we’re working on 2-20, it might be the primary runway for a year,” he added.
Because state transportation officials are talking about runway extension now, rather than six years from now, looking over the colorful tables they hand out regarding air travel demand is a curious experience. In fact, the Department of Transportation’s own projections show stagnant or just a minimal increase in air travel demand through 2035, the year the Master Plan schedule shows the majority of airport projects as being completed.
Let’s start with a chart curiously labeled “Maui County Visitor Forecasts 2011-2035” (it actually shows visitor figures dating back to 1999). It says visitor arrivals peaked in 2007 at nearly 2.5 million, but stand at less than 2 million today. By 2035, the chart says the number is only expected to rise to 2.25 million.
Other tables show similar, if not more damning evidence of stagnant air travel demand. Indeed, the “Interisland Operations Forecast” table shows that flights between the Hawaiian islands (which make up the majority of flights in and out of Kahului Airport) will climb from the current 20,000 annual figure to 25,000–the same number of operations as 2009. Similarly, the “Interisland Passenger Forecast” table shows the slightly more than 3 million passengers using the airport in 2035, which is more than the current 2.5 million but way less than the 3.3 million who passed through it in 2007.
Even the friendliest tables to the airport expansion crowd hardly show exploding growth. The table “Overseas Operations 2007-2035” only shows the number of Kahului Airport flights away from Hawaii rising from the current 9,000 a year to about 11,000 over the next quarter century. Similarly, the “Overseas Passenger Forecast” table shows the current annual passenger level rising from slightly less than 3 million today to about 3.5 million in 2035.
Northshore farmer Greg Westcott, who has fought Kahului Airport expansion for the last few decades, noticed these numbers during the Nov. 3, 2011 Citizens Advisory Committee meeting on the proposed Airport Master Plan at the Kaunoa Senior Center in Paia.
“Why do we need to expand?” Westcott asked the project planners, according to the meeting minutes. “The projections don’t warrant it.”
The meeting minutes show that Chester Koga, the planner with R.M. Towill Corp., which developed the Master Plan and briefed the CAC, acknowledged Westcott’s observation that the figures don’t show an increase in demand, but said that essentially that doesn’t matter.
“You don’t build when you need it, because when you need it, it is too late,” Koga said, according to the minutes. “You need to plan ahead and build ahead for the next 20 years.”
Funding the airport expansion project is a similar problem for state officials. In fact, how the state intends to pay for so much expansion is, at least at this level of planning, still, “up in the air,” according to Meisenzahl. “The Legislature’s taking it up now,” he added.
Of course, paying for something like runway resurfacing and extension is easy–the FAA pays for it. But things like consolidating the car rental companies is dicier, because that’s a profit-making business. On paper, airport officials can dip into the state’s rental car surcharge fund, which was set up for transportation projects like this. Except, Meisenzahl said, the administration used the fund last year to help balance the budget.
The bill SB 2946 attempts to rectify the situation, and it’s slowly moving throught the House–on Apr. 3, the House Finance Committee passed the measure with some amendments. But until the Legislature sorts it all out, Meisenzahl said the department simply didn’t know how they’d work out the airport expansion funding.
They apparently have plenty of time to do so. Work on the rental car consolidation isn’t suppose to take place for another two years, and before then will be at least an Environmental Assessment (Meisenzahl said he wasn’t sure an EIS would be necessary for the runway extension since it’ll be taking place on the existing airport footprint) and loads of public hearings.
This is only the beginning of the effort to expand Kahului Airport. But given the near-certainty that state transportation officials have over its certitude, there’s no better time than the present to start planning for it.