A master plan to modernize the San Antonio airport will take years to implement, but now is the time to get started, said city officials.
City Council isn’t slated to vote on the 2040 Airport Strategic Development Plan until Nov. 18. But during a B session presentation Wednesday, the mayor and council appeared already to be on board with what would be the largest capital project the city has ever undertaken.
“After five years of debate, it’s time to put down the pencils and pick up the shovels and go get it,” said Mayor Ron Nirenberg.
The plan is a sweeping overhaul of San Antonio International Airport that will extend a runway, add a new terminal, increase the number of gates and concessions, widen existing concourses, establish a transportation and parking center, relocate the air traffic control tower, and improve and reroute roadways for vehicle traffic.
The estimated $2.5 billion project will start next year, following a design planning phase, and continue through 2040.
Airport officials said that while the pandemic hobbled air travel in 2020 and slowed the planning process, the conditions are right for implementing an airport improvement plan to accommodate the city’s growth and passenger forecasts in the coming years.
Airport revenues and revenue bonds will fund the project, but officials are also eyeing the federal infrastructure bill’s allotted $25 billion for the nation’s airports, $15 billion of which will go into the Federal Aviation Administration’s Airport Improvement Program. There’s also a $5 billion competitive grant program for terminal projects and another $5 billion in federal funding for relocating air traffic control towers.
“We must start putting shovels in the ground, we’ve got to start to move forward,” said Jesus Saenz, director of airports for the City of San Antonio. “It could not be a better opportunity with what’s happening with the bipartisan infrastructure bill that’s coming through.”
Saenz said there is widespread support for the plan among the airport’s stakeholders — the FAA, Customs and Border Protection, the Transportation Safety Administration, and other federal agencies — as well as the general public. The airlines also want the plan to move forward as recommended by the airport strategic development committee, he said.
John Dickson is chairman of the committee overseeing the plan, a process that’s required by the FAA every 10 years. The plan developed in 2010 was never implemented, he said, but this time is different.
“I think we have the right team, the right business imperative, we have the right funding,” he said, urging implementation “as fast as possible.”
Council members suggested that airport officials include in the plan increased accessibility for disabled travelers, conduct a noise study, improve transportation to the airport from other parts of the city and region, and make the airport feel more like San Antonio.
Councilman Clayton Perry (D10) requested more information about the cost for each phase of the project and whether there was need for more capacity at the airport.
Noting that passenger volume has gone up steadily in the past few years, Saenz told Perry that while the airport has more room to grow for operations — aircraft takeoffs and landings — when it comes to the number of gates, the current capacity is “not so good.”
“I’m just being brutally honest to tell you, as we look at our 650,000-square-foot facility that encompasses Terminal A and Terminal B, with a total of 23 gates, if we continue to grow at the rate that we were growing before 2019, we’re going to be in deep trouble,” Saenz said.
Perry also pointed out that San Antonio could make improvements to the airport, but it’s the airlines that choose whether to bring flights to San Antonio and that’s based on passenger demand.
“They dictate to us where they want to fly from San Antonio, and it’s all on our business community to fly more to create that demand to open up direct flights out there,” he said. “And I hope everybody understands that. It’s not a build-it-and-they-will-come.”
Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8) said improving the airport would make San Antonio stronger when competing with other cities on economic development opportunities.
“I’m sick of losing business to other cities with better airports but not better workforces or better environments to enrich or do business,” he said.
The plans also met with the approval of District 3 Councilwoman Phyllis Viagran. “That’s what I wanted to hear and … what we need to do is pass this forward so we can get started,” Viagran said. “I look forward to the whole design process. I think this is the welcome mat to San Antonio.”
Following next week’s vote on the strategic development plan, airport officials will submit an airport layout plan to the FAA, define the project, conduct environmental assessments, and begin architectural design work.
“I don’t want to waste any more time,” Nirenberg said. “Let’s get after it. Let’s go do it. Let’s seize this opportunity and not let it sit on the shelf.”
This story has been updated to reflect the correct day the city council will vote on the plan, Nov. 18.