Six years ago, former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, a Democrat, convinced those that matter that New Orleans needed a new airport. Landrieu said the project would cost $650 million and be completed by May 2018. The timing was perfect. The deadline would allow Landrieu to cut the ribbon and then ride off in the sunset a hero at the end of his second term.
But the hero doesn’t always win in the end. They broke ground in 2014. They’re still digging, repairing, and constructing. Four promised deadlines have come and gone. Airport officials have stopped making promises. All they’ll say now is the new terminal should be finished sometime in the fall. Fall is three weeks away.
And the $650 million price tag Landrieu promised? Double it.
It’s clear now the Landrieu-backed project was not well thought-out. When the new terminal opens, getting there will be a nightmare. Construction has yet to begin on a permanent flyover ramp from Interstate 10, bypassing local neighborhoods and connecting motorists directly to the new terminal. Completion of that project is at least four years away. Although Landrieu announced plans for the new terminal in April 2013, state records show the mayor’s office didn’t make its first request to the state to finance the I-10 flyovers until October 2014 — 18 months later.
State officials share some of the blame. Why they waited five years to construct the flyovers makes no sense. They now claim they’re “working diligently” to start construction. State officials warn those living by the airport to expect increased traffic in their neighborhood once the new terminal opens. They also warn air travel passengers to expect a longer and more congested commute to Armstrong International.
If only that were all that’s gone wrong. Earlier this month, WWL Television reported an internal auditor for the city of Kenner found construction shortcuts were causing more than 100 breaks in sewage pipes underneath the new terminal. The breaks caused even more delays. Kenner Code Enforcement Director James Mohamad produced emails proving he warned airport officials about the consequences of the plumbing problems caused by the shortcuts.
“I'm proud to sit here and tell you that we warned them what was going to happen. And we have the documentation and the proof that we warned them,” Mohamad said at a recent Kenner City Council meeting.
But back then, emails show contractors argued that following those instructions was too costly and took up too much manpower. Mohamad says the terminal's current repairs are just the beginning of ongoing problems caused by construction shortcuts.
"It's not going away anytime soon," he said. "They're spending more money now in repairs than if they would've listened to us from the get-go."
Airport officials originally told WWL-TV the sewer line breaks would be fixed by the end of August. They now say the repairs are 80% complete and should be finished by the end of September. Making good on deadlines is not a big thing for airport officials.
Another question is why build a new terminal in the first place? Why not just upgrade the old terminal? You would think spending $1.3 billion to upgrade the old terminal would have made for a pretty fancy airport.
It’s rare for cities to build new airports. Most just renovate and upgrade their existing facilities. New Orleans is the first major American city in more than a decade to replace its airport terminal.
And what to do with the old airport? Potential demolition is probably years down the road. Doug Thornton, a member of the aviation board, is worried the airport will be paying to maintain an empty building that isn’t likely to be re-used.
“We’re probably better served by taking it down,” Thornton said.
Tourists will most likely be impressed with our new billion-dollar state-of-the-art airport once it opens. But it won’t be a deal-breaker. It’s doubtful anyone ever chose a vacation destination based on the city’s airport.
With all the problems with cost increases, construction short cuts, missed deadlines and lack of planning, Landrieu might want to make sure he’s out of town the day the ribbon’s cut and the new airport eventually opens. Assuming that day ever comes.
As the son of a New Orleans mayor, Mitch Landrieu said it was always his dream to follow in his father’s footsteps.