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Denver International Airport's fixation with Santiago Calatrava rail station: The flighty math

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Yesterday, Kim Day, Denver International Airport's aviation director, did her best to convince city council members that her team is being sensible in its approach to more than a billion dollars in construction projects at the world's tenth-busiest airport. But the leaner budget Day presented raises the kind of questions you get on TV shows about morbidly obese face-stuffers trying to shed their bloat: Can they stick to it?

As detailed in my 2010 feature "DIA Dreams," Day believes that the airport has to invest heavily in capital improvements -- and a far-flung apparatus of consultants, conceptionalists, focus groups and other marketing analysis associated with those moves -- to keep competitive in the rapidly evolving world of aviation. Since most of DIA's revenue stream comes from operations rather than taxpayers, it functions far more independently than most city agencies, with limited oversight on how money gets spent. But that hasn't discouraged skepticism about everything from Day's enthusiasm for pricey Spanish "starchitect" Santiago Calatrava, chosen to design a new bridge and rail station to the south of the existing terminal, to her recent ethics reprimand for a contractor-sponsored trip to Greece.

But see this account of the latest number-crunching on the hotel-station project. Day's now saying her team can trim $150 million from the $650 million build -- and the changes will be hardly noticeable to the untrained eye. But if DIA can so easily get by with a hotel and station complex that's almost a third smaller than what was originally proposed -- an entire floor of the hotel is gone -- it makes you wonder about the justifications involved in the original design.

Not to mention the $33 million that's already been spent on the "initial concepting" work on the project.

As for the bold design proposed by Calatrava -- hailed by our own Michael Paglia but ripped by philistines as an "iconic" statement that the city can't afford and that will interfere with the existing iconography -- the airport has not yet identified the funds to pay for the $60 million bridge Calatrava wants to build across Peña Boulevard for the train's grand entrance. RTD is prepared to do a $7.3 million bridge on the cheap; DIA can kick in another $15 million or so. That's not even half a Calatrava.

Day has insisted that Calatrava is willing to make changes in his design, saying, "Don't tell me what to cut. Tell me your budget." But whatever the budget is, it won't be enough. Calatrava's track record for bringing in projects that cost far more that what was originally envisioned is so extensive that he should be considered a serial budget-buster; or, as Robert Wilonsky once put it in the Dallas Observer, our sister paper, "Calatrava is Spanish for 'Over Budget'."

Calatrava has said that's a bum rap, that every expenditure on his public projects has to be authorized by the officials responsible for the budget. So the issue of how much the airport is prepared to spend comes back, again, to Day -- who insists she wants to run the airport like a business.

But will that business resemble Berkshire Hathaway -- or Lehman Brothers?

More from our Follow That Story archive: "Santiago Calatrava's DIA project: A bridge too far?"

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