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Senators on airport expansion: Slow down and open up
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Metropolitan Airports Commission chair Vickie Tigwell, accompanied by other MAC staff, advised the Senate Transportation Committee to allow the 2020 Vision plan to go forward. "If we stagnate growth at MSP," she told the committee, "we stagnate Minnesota's economy." (MPR Photo/Jeff Horwich)
State lawmakers turned a critical eye Tuesday on a major plan to expand Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. The so-called "2020 Vision" was announced this fall by Northwest Airlines and Gov. Pawlenty. Members of the Senate Transportation Committee heard from some who say the plan has moved too fast and too quietly.

St. Paul, Minn. — Despite the skeptical tone of the hearing, the 2020 plan remains very much on track. Northwest developed the plan in consultation with the staff of the Metropolitan Airports Commission. Gov. Pawlenty, who appoints most of the MAC members, has endorsed it. A MAC committee votes Wednesday -- and the full body next week -- on whether to continue the designs for Phase I.

Still, MAC officials must have been a little uncomfortable to hear from a number of State senators like Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis.

"How can we be sure that the public's interest is really being taken to heart in making this decision -- developing a process that considers all of the concerns, many of them represented in this room, about the competitiveness of the industry, serving this market, and looking at what seems to be a really, really fast process that this decision is on," Dibble said.

The full plan would unfold over 15 years, but construction on the first phase could begin this summer. The plan would add more gates at the main Lindbergh terminal and the smaller Humphrey terminal.

Northwest and its SkyTeam alliance partners -- Delta and Continental -- would control Lindbergh, with all other airlines at Humphrey. The first phase would involve enlarging Humphrey and moving the other airlines there.

Northwest and the governor say the $720 million expansion would add billions to the state economy, and spin off some 40,000 jobs. But the hearing brought out a coalition of big-city mayors opposed to the plan.

Speaking for the mayors of Duluth, Rochester, St. Cloud, Willmar and Mankato, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak said resources would be better spent expanding airports outside the Twin Cities. He told the committee the 2020 plan would mean more noise, more pollution -- and perhaps less competition for Twin Cities travelers.

The entire main terminal is going to be turned over to Northwest. I liken that to Thanksgiving, and being shunted off to the 'kiddie table.'
- Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak

"Stop and think if you were another air carrier that wanted to serve the state of Minnesota," Rybak said. "Stop and think about the fact that now, the entire main terminal is going to be turned over to Northwest. I liken that to Thanksgiving, and being shunted off to the 'kiddie table.' It's really clear that if that happens it will be harder and harder to compete at this airport."

MAC chairwoman Vickie Tigwell says the plan would mean more competition, not less. Right now, Tigwell says MSP has no open gates at peak travel times.

"When airlines come to the airport for gates, it is essential that we do our best to provide them," Tigwell told the committee. "We owe that to the people of Minnesota and the businesses of Minnesota."

Tigwell did not shy from the fact that the expansion was designed by Northwest, and would benefit Minnesota's hometown airline. She said Northwest has been asking for room to grow for the past 18 months, and scuttling the expansion plan could lead the company to expand elsewhere.

"Public officials, economists and citizens across Minnesota would point to that decision as the moment when Minnesota opted to stagnate its economy, turn its back on economic growth, and abandon its claim as an engaged and competitive player on the worldwide stage," Tigwell said.

Northwest declined an invitation to testify at the hearing. Their reason was a claim by Northwest mechanics that the expansion would cost up to 2,000 jobs, by demolishing maintenance hangars to make room for more gates in 2010. Northwest says it does not discuss labor issues in public, and so company representatives did not appear.

The local mechanics union president, Ted Ludwig, asked lawmakers to do something to slow the process down.

"We know that the airport needs to be expanded. We're not against that," Ludwig said. "The 2,000 jobs I talked about earlier, that was never brought up -- that's why we would like there to be just some pause, take a breath, have some study done before this gets voted on."

Northwest has not said whether the jobs would indeed be cut, or whether new hangars might be built for the mechanics. A bill from Sen. Satveer Chaudhary, DFL-Fridley, would put a moratorium on any more planning until Northwest answers questions about the plan's job impact.

Though the plan got a rough treatment in this DFL-controlled senate committee, it's unclear whether the Republican-controlled House would be eager to intervene. In the meantime, a MAC committee is set to vote Wednesday morning on whether to move ahead with more designs.

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