The planned sixth runway at Denver International Airport is in a holding pattern, blocked by congressional politics and doubts about whether it's needed at all. But a fire station designed largely to serve the phantom runway is already up and running--courtesy of a $1 million city contract that went to the sole bidder, a campaign contributor to Mayor Wellington Webb.
The fire station is just one of the construction jobs that have slipped in under the radar screen since DIA's opening two years ago. Airport officials, for instance, last year hired the same Webb supporter to build an $818,000 conference room with seating for 150 people. And the flow of costly add-ons at an airport that's already $3.9 billion in debt may have only just begun: Last week DIA officials proposed issuing a whopping $101 million in additional bond debt to pay for a lengthy to-do list. Among the goodies: $10 million to help reduce "vibrations" in the airport's lemon of an automated baggage system, which works in only one direction on only one concourse and has already cost $232 million. The baggage system, whose numerous bugs delayed the opening of the airport for more than a year, is now apparently shaking so badly that it poses a threat to baggage handlers and could even self-destruct if it isn't anchored more firmly.
The sheer size of the new request--by contrast, the city's total spending on parks, police, fire, streets and all other general expenses totaled about $491 million in 1996--has some city council members worried that administration officials giddy from DIA's robust cash flow are more interested in accumulating debt than they are in paying it off.
"I think it's absolutely ludicrous to go further into debt to do things over that weren't done right the first time," says councilman Ted Hackworth. "They're talking about spending $10 million on the automated baggage system. We gave up on that three years ago and said, 'To hell with it, it's not going to work.' Why would we spend $10 million on it now?" (The airport's airlines are now served by a $63 million traditional tug-and-cart system, which the city had to build to get the airport open.)
Councilman Ed Thomas is equally skeptical about a proposal for a $16 million parking garage, which he says aviation officials have based on a study showing the new structure will be needed by the year 2007. "My question is, if you can track what it's going to be like for the next ten years, why in hell couldn't you anticipate this two years ago and build accordingly?" Thomas asks. "Why couldn't you anticipate these problems when you put the damn thing in?"
Airport assistant finance director Debra L. DeMuth says the ten-year projections Thomas is talking about actually applied to an $18 million plan to relocate or redesign the airport's toll plaza--yet another item on DIA's agenda. As for the parking garage, she says airport officials are simply responding to a "tremendous demand" for parking spaces unforeseen by DIA consultants.
However, that's not the only reason the administration wants money for a parking garage. Getting the structure built also would help seal a deal Denver wants to cut with the Westin hotel chain to build a terminal hotel at DIA. The hotel would be built on top of the garage, which would have to be specially reinforced to hold the weight.
And at the same time the administration is pushing for the new parking garage, it is also asking for $20 million to purchase right-of-way for a proposed "Air Train" to DIA. The whole point of building that railroad line is to discourage people from driving to the airport--and taking up parking spaces.
"It probably is ironic," concedes airport spokesman Chuck Cannon of the double effort, which comes at a time when nobody knows who would operate the Air Train or who would pay for it. Despite those unanswered questions, Cannon says officials are anxious to buy the land--now owned by the Union Pacific Railroad and developer Bill Pauls--before real estate prices in the airport corridor rise any further.
The proposed new bond debt, which DeMuth says can safely be financed from the airport's hefty revenue stream, would have to be approved by the city council. But the council has a spotty history when it comes to reining in spending at DIA, a mega-project born in the 1980s as a barefaced effort to jump-start the local economy with government money. The new fire station is a good example of how the public tap has remained fixed in the "on" position even after the building spree presumably was over.
The firehouse, which opened this past January, was included in early designs for the airport, as was the sixth runway it was intended to serve. When noise complaints and budget pressures prompted Congress to freeze funding for the runway, DIA opened with five runways and three fire stations, an arrangement that met safety guidelines established by the Federal Aviation Administration. But last year the fourth fire station, which DIA officials defend as a significant addition to their safety net, went up anyway.
Aviation safety buffs weren't the only ones who benefited.
The lone bidder on the firehouse job was the J.A. Walker Company, owned by minority contractor and Webb backer James A. Walker Sr. and his wife, Dorothy. The firm bid $1,051,608 on a job for which the city had budgeted $830,000. But instead of rebidding the contract to ensure competition, as Councilman Hackworth proposed during council deliberations in April 1996, DIA officials urged the council to proceed with the project immediately. The primary reason given was to ensure "consistent response times" by fire units, which officials say were cutting it close even though their performance technically fell within FAA standards.
"It enhances response times to several runways on the north end of the airfield," DIA spokesman Cannon says of the new station. "We were making them sometimes and not making them sometimes."
When the city council voted on the project last year, DIA chief engineer Norm Witteveen said he hoped to trim construction costs as work proceeded. Apparently, he didn't bring a big knife: Witteveen says he's been able to carve only about $18,000 from the contract.
James A. Walker Sr. says he doesn't know why his firm was the only bidder on the firehouse job. "That's a good question," he says. But he claims it isn't unusual to have only one bidder on a public contract, adding that "it happens all the time."
When asked whether he believes his firm's contributions to Webb had anything to do with the firehouse contract being pushed through, Walker asks, "What campaign contributions?" Told that records at the city clerk's office show that J.A. Walker Co. gave Webb $400 in June 1994 and $250 more in January 1995, he responds, "Is that what the numbers show? If that's what they show, that's what they show."
The law, Walker continues, "allows citizens to make contributions to whomever they would like." The contractor, whose family business has received more than $4.5 million in city contracts since 1993, adds that the firm did work for the city long before Webb was elected mayor. The company's other recent contracts include a recreation center and a district headquarters building for the parks department, along with an open-ended $1 million contract signed last February that gives Walker first crack at miscellaneous city construction jobs over the next year.
Hackworth says that when he expressed concern about Walker's hiring at DIA last year, he and other councilmembers were told that Walker was the only contractor to bid on the firehouse job because other construction companies were too busy. "I always wonder when Mr. Walker gets a contract, because he definitely is closely attached to the mayor," says Hackworth. "I questioned whether he should be able to take the job, because he was already committed to three other contracts. They came back and said he could."
Interestingly, despite the administration's rush to get the new firehouse built, the one-story structure doesn't represent an actual increase in firefighting capacity at the airport. According to assistant fire chief Jerry Melaragno, DIA still has the same amount of personnel and equipment it did before the station opened and has simply reallocated them.
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Getting the station in place before the sixth runway is built was good for planning purposes, Melaragno contends. As for the construction contract, he says he thinks the city got "a hell of a deal."
And the fire station isn't the only deal the city has thrown Walker's way at DIA. Last year the firm got an $818,000 contract to build a 5,000-square-foot "multimedia conference room" at DIA and to provide assorted "minor construction modifications and repairs" throughout the airport. Cannon says the conference room was an important addition to the airport. "What happens if we have a major incident out here?" he asks. "Where do you put the media? We can't just stand everyone in the terminal."
What to do with the media is one of many questions DIA officials say they have to address. The airport's Five-Year Capital Improvement Program, a non-binding wish list prepared to help predict future needs at DIA, includes two items that may sound familiar. According to that document, by the year 2000, the airport just may require a seventh runway--and a fifth firehouse to serve it.
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