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Editorial: Hector International Airport skywalk would be a big waste of money

The Fargo Airport Authority was presented with architectural sketches showing the design of a possible skyway to protect patrons from the weather while walking from parking areas to the terminal at Hector International Airport. The project carries a price tag of $13 million to $15 million.

We have to acknowledge that the drawings for the proposed skywalk at Hector International Airport look nice. The idea of the elevated walkway is to provide airport visitors with an enclosure to protect them from the harsh elements while walking to and from the parking lots. It certainly can be an unpleasant hike in snowy or rainy weather. But the skywalk, with a price tag now estimated between $13 million and $15 million, would be a foolhardy use of public funds. The money would be far better spent on a real solution to the airport's parking aggravations: a covered parking ramp.

The skywalk would bisect the parking lots and connect to the terminal building. It would be heated and cooled, and support structures also will serve as staircases and elevators. The Airport Authority so far has committed only to designs for the skywalk, with fees totaling a little more than $1 million. The authority board will decide whether to go ahead with the project only in the event it views bids from contractors as favorable. Any such decision is months away, so there is still plenty of time to reconsider.

We've argued in the past that authority board members should be more creative in their approaches to finding the money to build a ramp, which would cost roughly double what the elevated walkway would cost. We've even suggested a possible supplementary revenue source, in addition to revenues from parking fees and leases paid by rental car companies, which often are conveniently housed in parking ramps. Our suggestion has been to levy a use fee for air passengers who board or deplane at their airport. Last year, close to 400,000 got off airplanes at Hector and a slightly smaller number boarded flights. If each person boarding paid a $1 fee, for instance, that would do a lot to pay help for a ramp.

The Airport Authority board seems to be seduced by the possibility of significant federal grant support for a skywalk, which would be eligible for up to 90 percent assistance. A ramp, on the other hand, would be ineligible for a grant because it would produce revenues. That shouldn't cloud the board's thinking.

Let's face it: The skywalk is, at best, an imperfect solution. A lucky few would be able to park near entrances for the skywalk, but the vast majority of airport patrons will find themselves parking far from the entrances—and still will be exposed to the weather as they trudge, baggage in hand, to reach the sheltered walkway. Some—many?—likely won't even bother with the skywalk much—most?—of the time. Yet it would cost a staggering $13 million or more. That's a lousy cost-benefit ratio, and a poor use of public funds, even if it's mostly "free" money from Uncle Sam.

The Airport Authority's long-range plans contemplate a parking ramp that would be located near the terminal and just west of a skywalk. The skywalk, in fact, is designed to easily allow connection to a ramp. The authority board should skip the walkway and build a ramp. In the end, it would be a much better solution to airport parking headaches.

Editorials represent the views of Forum management and the Editorial Board.