I asked the city of Atlanta how many people were processed through Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport’s current international terminal, (known as Concourse E) per hour, in 2011. That might seem an odd request, but nearly $1.6 billion — and the price you and your loved ones pay to fly in and out of Atlanta — are riding on the answer.
You see, back in 2003, Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin announced the construction of the new Maynard Holbrook Jackson International Terminal (Concourse F) at the airport. Why? Passenger traffic demanded it.
Less than one year after Franklin’s announcement, well before the groundbreaking, an airport employee and expert, Ground Transportation Manager Steve Yates, blew the whistle. He wrote a letter to Franklin, informing her that “The project was ridiculously expensive and totally unnecessary.”
Franklin’s project manager messaged Yates’ back via email, writing, “This is very good, who else have you told?”
Yates responded, “No one.”
Franklin’s project manager replied, “I have forwarded it to the law department. They intend to investigate.”
Sometime later, when Yates says he realized he was being patronized, he alerted the media.
Yates produced evidence the airport’s current international terminal, Concourse E — with 28 gates — averaged a passenger capacity rate of just 25 percent. That rate occasionally rose to 44 percent when the airport routed domestic flights through its international terminal. So why was the city moving forward with the construction of a then-$688 million international terminal? According to Yates, it was because “It helps fund the campaigns of Atlanta politicians.”
As an investigative reporter, I’ve covered the Atlanta airport for 16 years. In my view, the new international terminal, set to open this week, is a classic example of Atlanta’s “pay to play” political system. How can I prove it? Georgia’s Open Records Act, enacted by the state Legislature, requires answers to simple questions from your government (city, county and state) within three days.
Nearly three weeks after I’d asked the city of Atlanta to provide passenger numbers for the current international concourse, I was informed that the city “does not have any documents that are responsive to your request.”
You must be kidding me! The city of Atlanta went full steam ahead with the construction of a new international terminal, and they have no idea whether passenger traffic justifies it? Please.
In 2005, it was revealed that the $688 million project had grown wildly out of control. Airport Manager Ben DeCosta fired the design team for going over budget. The result? The design team sued, and the city settled the case in 2011 by paying the team an additional $1.25 million.
This week, the airport will begin operating its new $1.58 BILLION international terminal. Conservatively speaking, it will cost you — the flying public — an additional $138.5 MILLION per year in increased flying costs — not to mention rental car fees and related facility expenses.
Why did Atlanta build it? Here’s my two cents: Franklin received $644,500 in airport vendor campaign contributions toward her 2005 re-election campaign, one in which she was virtually unopposed. Current Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed has collected $176,098 from airport vendors, a small portion of which he has returned, after coming under fire from the media.
What did Airport Ground Transportation Manager Steve Yates get for his candor back in 2006? He got fired.
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