CHICAGO - Suburban opponents of the Wayne County Airport Authority's $3.6 billion expansion of Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport said in a report this week that recent federal aviation data shows the airport is overstating its need for a fifth parallel runway.

The report comes a week before the seven-member airport authority board is set to vote on the expansion plan, which includes the fifth runway, the expansion of an existing runway, a passenger transportation rail system, and other terminal expansion projects. If the board approves the plan, it would then go to the Federal Aviation Administration for review.

According to the opponents' study, the FAA's most recent terminal expansion forecast shows less growth at the airport than was forecast in 2005, when the airport began to put together its plan. Data from 2005 predicts the airport would have 810,061 takeoffs and landings in 2025, while revised data released in December 2007 predicts the airport would have 677,155 takeoffs and landings by then.

The coalition of suburbs that oppose the expansion paid Washington, D.C.-based law firm Hogan & Hartson LLP $55,000 to review the airport's technical plan. "The technical report vastly overstates the future demand and capacity needs of the airport, and presents a view that is thoroughly distorted, exaggerated, and not even close to what a correct and impartial analysis, based on up-to-date data, would yield," reads the report.

The revised figures mean that the airport's existing infrastructure is sufficient for the next 20 years, said Timothy Keyes, economic development director for the city of Romulus, one of five suburbs opposed to the plan.

"If they use 2007 numbers they don't have to do any of the expansion of the new runway - they have everything they need," said Keyes. Under the current expansion plan, 16% of Romulus' population would be relocated to accommodate the airport's growth. Other suburbs have complained about excessive noise under the proposed plan and other environmental concerns.

Airport officials stand by their data, and say both numbers show a climb in enplanements.

"The 2005 numbers were the most up-to-date numbers when we started the planning process," said Scott Wintner, an airport authority spokesman. "Yes, it's true that the 2007 data reflects a projection lower than 2005, but that doesn't mean the 2008 data won't show higher projections. And the vote [by the authority board] on May 22 to approve the plan is not a vote to put shovels in the ground."

The FAA's revisions are a result of several economic factors, including fuel costs and airline mergers, according to the Hogan & Hartson report. Indeed, Detroit Metro Airport stands to be impacted by the proposed merger between Delta Air Lines Inc. and Northwest Airlines Corp. as Northwest currently dominates the airport's business, accounting for 76% of its 18.1 million passengers in 2007 - a merger that ratings analysts said could prove a risk to the credit.

The fifth runway is expected to cost $361 million - plus another $172 million in land acquisition costs - while the passenger rail system is estimated to cost $734 million.

The authority has yet to compile a formal financing plan, but expects to rely on a combination of passenger facility charges, which are added to the price of an airline ticket, along with state and federal aid, said officials in earlier interviews. Under tentative borrowing plans, passenger facility charges would be used to pay debt service on general airport revenue bonds.

The airport has a total of about $2 billion in senior-lien debt and another $214 million of junior-lien debt outstanding.

 

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