Ambition becomes a megamess

  • Denver Mayor Federico Pena presents Gov. Roy Romer with a box of oatmeal

    Dave Buren
  • Map of wind shear areas

    Diane Sylvain
  • Baggage system cartoon

    Mike Keefe

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, The West sings the Denver airport blues.

"To our despair, (megaprojects) often develop lives of their own, and their lives sometimes defy control by us mere mortals."
- An unnamed Exxon engineer, quoted in the Rand Corp. study, Understanding the Outcomes of Megaprojects

When it comes to megaprojects, the modern West has seen a succession of clear outright failures and boondoggles (Webster's definition: To do work of little or no practical value merely to keep or look busy; e.g., the Central Arizona Project).

When Denver set out to build a mega-airport, there were fresh, nearby examples that offered discouragement. The city also had to work at ignoring the first systematic analysis of megaprojects, which was published by the Rand Corporation think tank in 1988, just as Denver was considering whether to go ahead with its ambition.

The think tank studied 52 megaprojects that cost an average of $2 billion, including Alaska's oil pipeline, hydroelectric dams, mines, mills, water ports and the last major airport built in the U.S. (Dallas/Fort Worth). The megaprojects were burdened by cost overruns and delays and prone to "stretch available resources to the limit."

The more complicated a project was, the more chance something - make that, many things - would go badly.

The risk increased when any megaproject was executed in a hurry, or managed by government, or used new technology or innovative design. If Denver's leaders read the Rand report back then, they must have scoffed at every point.

"If you said you were against it, you were against motherhood and apple pie. Well, now it's time to take another look. It's a complete disaster ... No wonder everybody is starting to plead insanity."

- Bill McNichols, mayor of Denver from 1968 to 1983, talking about the new airport

Fifty chambers of commerce in the Denver metro area backed the proposal for a new mega-airport. So did suburban mayors and county officials, construction workers and the AFL-CIO. Colorado's full delegation, including liberals and fiscal conservatives, greased the wheels in Congress.

Still there was a citizen gantlet to run - two referendums deciding whether Denver should annex the dry wheat fields on which the mega-airport would be built. The financial muscle gathered behind the Let's Vote Yes campaign - mostly businesses that were ready to profit, such as utilities, banks, lawyers, speculating savings-and-loans, and developers hoping to cash in on real estate in the annexed area. Then-Gov. Dick Lamm called the Vote Yes backing "the most awesome money machine in Colorado."

Assuming office in time to say he would "crush" and "roll over" airport opponents, Roy Romer, Colorado's present governor, went on what he called "the oatmeal circuit" - staging no less than 165 man-of-the-people breakfasts in cafes and doughnut shops (some days he managed three breakfasts before 7:30 a.m.), mingling and talking up the airport before each referendum.

Mayor Federico Peûa staged public meetings at which he displayed an inspiring $24,000 model of the new airport. He stood on church steps and appealed for any support he could get: "We need prayers and votes."

The Vote No campaign - led by a couple of throwback local politicians, some maverick consultants and semi-retired engineers who suspected the megaproject was unsound - struggled along primarily on volunteer effort, antagonistic or nonexistent media coverage, outspent by as much as 4-to-1.

The crucial second referendum vote came on May 16, 1989; only registered voters in Denver got to decide a question that would shape the future of Colorado and much of the West. The ballot opened with the propagandalike wording, "In order to create more jobs, stimulate the local economy, and meet future air transport needs ..." and ended, "... using no city taxes."

Celebrating after the tally, Mayor Peûa posed with Gov. Romer and a box of oatmeal. Just 37 percent of the votes went against the megaproject. A jubilant Peûa exulted, "What you heard from the voters was the sound of Denver taking off!"

Question: "What's the difference between Denver International Airport and the White House?"

Answer: "You can land a plane at the White House."

- One of the many DIA jokes in circulation today

The price creep began when the city bought the remote land from speculators for hugely inflated prices - as much as $40,000 an acre. It accelerated during construction, which officially began in September 1989. With the megaproject fast-tracked, crews worked around the clock. A planned work force of 5,000 more than doubled. Leveling the earth to pour concrete for five runways (each more than two miles long) and all the rest of it, workers moved one-third as much dirt as in the construction of the Panama Canal.

Even something so basic as the dirt could not be counted on. A world-famous soil scientist, Fu Hua Chen, had warned the city that the site had "both collapsible and expansive soils," which shift when exposed to moisture. According to an investigation by the Associated Press, it became a nagging problem: The hardening concrete slumped and cracked like a drying lake bed.

The city said any cracking that was abnormal was caused by bad batches of concrete, but for whatever reason, extensive cracks had to be pumped with glue. Whole undulating expanses had to be leveled by grinders. A runway had to be jack-hammered apart so replacement concrete could be laid. The concrete buildings and tunnels cracked, too.

Even as the airport was being built, it had to be rebuilt - which put the megaproject behind schedule and increased the sense of hurry. The embryonic airport leaked allegations of substandard materials and practices. The estimate that it could be built for $1.5 billion had to be corrected torturously upward.

Under such pressure, the megaproject metamorphosed. To save money, the city slashed the number of concourse gates from 120 to 88. The size of the terminal shrank by half, still coming in at a whopping 1.5 million square feet. Saving $6 million in one swoop, the city dropped a plan for the terminal to have a conventional roof of steel and glass, and opted for a cheaper tent roof.

A 27-mile-an-hour wind ripped a tent roof off the San Diego convention center in 1991; another tent roof on the Minneapolis Metrodome has collapsed under snow. The damaged roofs had been rigged differently than the airport's roof, but they used the same Teflon-coated fiberglass, a fabric so sheer it's translucent.

The 900-foot-long, 100-foot-tall tent roof was touted as resembling Colorado's signature snow-capped mountains, or clouds, or teepees, or the airport's boldness. Critics warned it wouldn't hold up to the notorious Front Range wind gusts (which hit 100 m.p.h.) and tornadoes or the blizzards that can dump and drift several feet of snow per hour.

"Initially it was thought that the terminal would have a roof roof, but architects now feel a tent-like top would carry more of the Colorado flavor. Goodness knows it'd be practical when some future administration decides to scrap a perfectly good airport and move it 40 miles farther away so as to be able to congratulate itself and, purely coincidentally of course, to enrich still more chamber of commerce members holding title to scruffy acreages a long way from nowhere."

- Tom Gavin, Denver Post columnist, August 1990

Bad news has a habit of snowballing. The allegations included sweetheart contractor deals, bad welding, bad plumbing, bad roof drains, bad heating and cooling, wastefulness (100,000 tons of construction trash). The new airport, 20 miles farther from downtown than Denver's old airport, was said to be too far out - people using it will drive an estimated 800,000 additional miles per year, spewing out that much extra tailpipe pollution.

For awhile everybody was talking about the weather, but not as light conversation. Killer weather will extract a toll at the new airport, according to critics like Bill Rourke, an aerospace science professor at Metro State College in Denver, who warned Congress in May 1991, "Airplanes will crash and people will die expressly because of the site selected."

The wind owns the plains along the Front Range. Prevailing westerlies flowing over the Continental Divide accelerate downslope and become turbulent, much like a river flowing over rocks becomes a rapid. The turbulence features deadly "microbursts," or wind shear. According to meteorologist and pilot Rourke, Denver's old airport, Stapleton, has the worst wind-shear problem in the U.S. - sometimes experiencing a 60-m.p.h. wind difference from one end of a runway to the other.

A passenger jet at Stapleton crashed in 1975 due to wind shear. In 1984, wind shear forced another jet down to within 13 feet of the ground; that jet struck runway lights and speared a radio antenna and landed with the antenna stuck through its hull. In 1988, five jets were waved off from their approach to Stapleton because of wind shear (to warn other pilots, the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Center for Atmospheric Research reconstructed the wave-offs in a video titled, The Day All Hell Broke Loose). In 1991, another jet crashed at Colorado Springs, slapped down by the same Front Range pattern of wind shear.

Compared to Stapleton, the mega-airport will have worse weather. It is more centered in a weather collision, the Denver Convergence Zone, where summer winds off the mountains meet opposing winds off the Palmer Divide, a low ridge on the plains. The convergence zone generates thunderstorms - another source of wind shear - as well as tornadoes and increased gusting.

Only one area in the country has a higher incidence of thunderstorms: Orlando-Tampa, but at the lower elevation in Florida, the air is thicker, so the wings and engines of planes function better and wind shear is not so much a problem. The reassurances offered by the FAA and federal weather agencies amounted to: Storms and wind shear are a problem all along the Front Range and the new airport's weather will only be slightly worse than Stapleton's.

"Wind speeds at the new airport are significantly higher than at Stapleton," reported one study by NCAR. "Winds last three to four hours longer ... Incidence of storms is greater ... High winds are more common ... (And there will be) increasing thunderstorms and tornadoes ... Thus, weather delays will be greater." The FAA said the new airport will be equipped with the nation's most advanced wind-shear detection devices, and will be safe, but the agency also advised pilots: "The best defense against wind shear is to avoid it altogether."

It seems like a strange place to locate the nation's first major new airport in 20 years - smack in the bull's-eye.

"We are going to open March 9 (1994) if I have to unload baggage myself."

- Denver's current mayor, Wellington Webb, before the airport's March 9 opening date was canceled

There is probably a person who has not heard of the baggage problem at Denver International Airport. Probably it would be easier to find somebody who has not heard of O.J. Simpson's marital troubles. Video of Denver's mangled and misplaced suitcases has been featured on CNN broadcasts in Singapore, as well as International Travel Network reports from London and NBC Nightly News. No publicist could have gotten more ink in the likes of Time and Newsweek, The New York Times, the LA Times. Forbes magazine said, "It is the technologist's worst nightmare come true: a giant project held hostage by troublesome software code and insufficient testing."

To move baggage around the airport's vastness, Denver commissioned the most technologically advanced system ever: Without being touched by people, 700 suitcases per minute would be sorted and whisked over 22 miles of underground track. More than 100 computers would communicate via radio signals and bar codes and photoelectric cells, giving orders to 10,000 motors through 14 million feet of wire.

But in test after test, with airline dignitaries and reporters witnessing, the baggage system jammed and smashed what it was supposed to protect. As the Rand study had foreseen, the reach for new technology put the whole megaproject in jeopardy. The baggage non-system contributed to the delays: The mega-airport was supposed to open Oct. 31, 1993, which was rescheduled to Dec. 19, which was rerescheduled to March 9, 1994, then rererescheduled to May 15, 1994, which was also missed.

The only way DIA would cost $2.7 billion "is if you gold-plate the
terminal building."

- Denver aviation director George Doughty, in August 1988, when United and Continental insisted that the city was underestimating costs

The dynamic got vicious, as the delays forced the total cost of the mega-airport still higher, to the vicinity of $4 billion, not including financing. Other than a mere half-billion from a federal airport fund, the airport was being built and rebuilt on borrowed money.

The city was floating revenue bonds, and profit from operating the airport was supposed to pay the bondholders regular interest. Except, the airport wasn't operating. So, more and more bonds had to be floated - borrowing more money just to pay the interest on what it already owed, the city was operating like a loan-shark victim.

Interest payments now exceed $1 million a day.

Meanwhile allegations of corruption, fraud and dangerous corner-cutting stimulated at least 10 different investigations by Congress, the FBI, the FAA, the federal Department of Transportation, a federal grand jury, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Securities and Exchange Commission, several state attorney generals and local prosecutors.

People began to parachute out of the mega-airport. City aviation director Doughty quit suddenly, to take a job running a small airport in Pennsylvania. The chief airport engineer quit, citing "family pressures and stress." The former assistant aviation director complained that his job had been threatened when he questioned the awarding of certain contracts. Mayor Peûa himself decided not to seek re-election; he bowed out to become a private consultant, and then ascended to be the present secretary of Transportation for the Clinton adminstration.

"The city's ... design team traveled around the world before construction started, seeking to learn what worked and what didn't ... "That's what makes DIA so exciting," says Chuck Cannon, DIA's manager of public affairs. "We've got it all."

 - From a story in Continental Airlines' New West magazine, published in
March 1994, just before the city canceled the airport's opening for the fourth time

So many people were caught making bad assumptions: You could pick up various guides put out by the city, the state and tourist organizations, and read that the mega-airport was open and doing fine, and that Denver's old airport, Stapleton, was closed. The official Denver International Airport souvenir guide published in the spring of "94 said passengers "will be pleasantly surprised to find their baggage waiting for them at the terminal."

The 1994 American Automobile Association map of Denver didn't even show Stapleton (just a blank space) but did show the new mega-airport, in case any tourists wanted to drive out there and watch the concrete being patched.

The jobs that the mega-airport was supposed to create seem for now to be another myth. The construction jobs are winding down. The high cost of the mega-airport helped to break Continental Airlines' commitment to Denver, and as Continental closes almost all its operations there, several thousand jobs are being lost.

Promises that the mega-airport would not cost the taxpayers have also been broken. Millions in tax money have been spent on roads and on all the investigations. The Denver Post found that savings-and-loans speculation on DIA real estate cost the taxpayers $24 million. The speculators kept selling the land back and forth to each other, inflating the price to as much as $107,000 an acre - more even than the city would pay. When the savings-and-loans collapsed, their deals were backed by the national federal bailout. Then some of the land was sold for what it was worth - cents on the dollar.

At this moment, crews are working toward the fifth opening date, Feb. 28, though the baggage system remains a hang-up. Now they're trying to install a conventional, old-technology system for a portion of the airport and patch it into a piece of the high-tech system that might be made to run properly. Don't hold your breath.

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