DALLAS — As Denver International Airport embarks on the largest expansion project in its 16-year history, it’s benefitting from surging passenger levels and an improving economy that yielded a new traffic record in 2010.

With 4.2 million passengers using DIA in December, the year’s total rose to 52.2 million, an rise of 1.9% over the previous record of 51.2 million in 2008. Many other airports are experiencing similar gains.

“We saw the signs that we might break our 2008 record during the fourth quarter of last year, but actually surpassing the 52-million passenger mark exceeds our earlier expectations,” said Denver aviation manager Kim Day. “We hope this milestone is a signal that we, as a region, are emerging from the sluggish economy.”

As DIA officials anticipate more growth, the airport is developing a $650 million South Terminal that will include a hotel, train station, bridge and plaza. The project will be funded by revenue bonds.

December brought a 3.6% increase in DIA flight operations, which rose to 53,530 from 51,648 in the final month of 2009. Cargo increased 2.3% to 51.8 million total pounds from 50.6 million pounds in December 2009. There were 50.2 passengers overall in 2009.

The rebounding traffic figures indicate better times ahead for the long-suffering airline industry. Denver’s major carrier, Chicago-based United Airlines, merged with Houston-based Continental Airlines last October.

Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport retained its place in 2010 as the world’s busiest for the 13th straight year with traffic growing 1.5% to 89.3 million. Chicago O’Hare International Airport, the second busiest, experienced a 6.5% traffic gain.

While most of the nation’s top airports reported growth, Las Vegas-McCarran International Airport continued to see a steady decline in 2010 from the record 47.7 million passengers it serviced in 2007. McCarran’s 39.8 million passengers last year represented a 16.7% drop from that peak.

In Colorado, DIA’s gain came as Colorado Springs lost passengers and a major carrier, in U.S. Airways, 60 miles to the south. The 873,257 passengers who boarded flights in Colorado Springs during 2010 was down 6.1% from 2009, the lowest level since 790,966 passengers boarded flights there in 1994.

Denver International Airport is pairing it planned expansion with a new commuter-rail line from downtown Denver’s Union Station, which being built by the Regional Transportation District. The airport rail link will be part of the RTD’s $2.7 billion FasTracks program, and includes rail and bus lines to new stations throughout the Denver metro area.

Due to rising costs, the project is expected to cost more than originally projected in 2004. RTD staffers recommended last week that the board ask voters for a 0.2% sales tax increase to finish FasTracks by 2027. The RTD board plans to vote on the 2011 financial plan Feb. 22. If it decides to seek an election this year, it has until Aug. 15 to approve the official ballot.

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