Denver Government

Denver City Council Voting on Massive Airport Contracts Today

Denver City Council will vote on the contracts on January 10.
Denver City Council will vote on the contracts on January 10. Michael Roberts
Following a week's delay, Denver City Council will vote today, January 10, on a massive set of contracts for a renovation of Denver International Airport.

"We need to finish what we started: renovating the terminal for the future," says Michael Sheehan, a senior vice president of special projects at the airport.

The four contracts would cover $1.1 billion for the continuing renovation of the Great Hall, including relocated security checkpoints. With another $200 million in add-ons that the airport is paying for directly, the cost of the entire project will run over $2 billion.

Denver City Council was originally slated to vote on the contracts on January 3. However, councilmembers Kevin Flynn and Debbie Ortega enacted a rule that allowed for an automatic one-week postponement so that councilmembers could ask more questions of airport officials, including Phil Washington, the airport's new CEO.

"Phil Washington and his team have been extremely transparent in sharing information about the budget," says Ortega, noting that the private group with which the city had originally contracted to handle the renovation project was not nearly as transparent. "They were very helpful in connecting me to our external expert advisors to answer all my questions related to the protections in place focused on the fiscal health of the Denver International Airport, our number-one economic engine for the Front Range."

After meeting with airport officials twice over the last week, Flynn says that he feels comfortable with the proposal, adding that he now has a "complete understanding" of it.

The $2 billion-plus price tag is closer to the amount that Denver signed on for in August 2017, when the city agreed to a 34-year, $1.8 billion deal with Ferrovial Airports to head Great Hall Partners, an alliance that had the goal of remodeling Jeppesen Terminal into a giant private mall that would capture the shopping dollars of a captive audience of travelers trapped behind security.

That decision turned out to be a nightmare for the city, which finally told Great Hall Partners in August 2019 that it was terminating the 34-year contract 32 years early. In total, the City of Denver was on the hook with Ferrovial for $245 million. Now it must fund the rest of the preconceived project through bond money and airport revenue, whereas Ferrovial would have used city money and private financing.

The project that council will vote on is very different from the Great Mall design.

Instead, the renovation "will enhance security, relocate it off level five, increase capacity for growth for new airlines and carriers to come to DEN, and improve operational efficiency along with elevate the passenger experience," according to Sheehan.

The large contracts would be with companies that the airport is already working with on the renovations, such as an additional $900 million to Hensel Phelps Construction Company, which signed on after the original project blew up. Hensel Phelps would be in charge of competitively bidding out some of the construction jobs.

And $100 million will go toward Stantec Architecture, with another $50 million each earmarked for LS Gallegos and Associates and Jacobs Engineering Group. The additional $200 million in projects that Denver City Council is not voting on — since council only votes to approve contracts and not direct airport spending — will go toward building what the airport is calling a Center of Excellence and Equity in Aviation, terminal modernization and capacity upgrades.

Denver International Airport opened in 1995 and was designed before the 9/11 terrorist attacks made its security setup obsolete. The new design has also taken into consideration another situation that wasn't anticipated years ago: the COVID pandemic. Everything being done at the airport is as "touchless as possible," says Sheehan. "We took a hard look at our conceptual design when COVD really set in back in June 2020, and the overall consensus at that time was that we had a good plan."

Denver International Airport was the third-busiest airport in the world last year, according to industry stats. The expansion is needed to accommodate growing crowds that weren't envisioned thirty years ago, Washington says.

"This is an aging facility," he told a council meeting on December 15.."This airport is 26 years old. It is aging. It is showing its age in many respects, and it's crowded. I've often said that around the country, not just DEN, it's the same airport, but more people. More people are flying, and we are recovering more than and faster than any large hub airport in this country."

And another billion would help it recover even faster.
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Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports.