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To hear airport boosters tell it, the story of the recent completion of the new international terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson airport ends with a Happily Ever After.
The Maynard H. Jackson Jr. International Terminal is one of the largest in the country, and it takes advantage of expected growth in international travel at the world’s busiest airport. Passengers will receive the best in service inside its glistening corridors, they say.
When city leaders announced its opening date, they could not contain their enthusiasm.
"I am . . . pleased to announce today that the Maynard H. Jackson International Terminal will open for global business and travel on Wednesday, May 16, on time and on budget," Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said during a speech in the weeks before the terminal’s opening.
The audience applauded. PolitiFact Georgia grew concerned.
"On time and on budget"?
PolitiFact Georgia recently gave airport spokesman John Kennedy a Pants on Fire rating after he said the terminal was completed "within budget."
So what about the mayor’s "on time and on budget" claim?
We found that airport boosters have made a habit of describing what was a daytime drama as a fairy tale.
As we’ve said before, planning for the international terminal began more than a decade ago, well before Reed took office as mayor in January 2010. Leaders hoped to double the size of the international complex.
Stories printed in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in November 2000 pegged the cost at $719 million.
Leaders said it could be finished as early as 2004, according to AJC stories.
Those plans soon went awry. Construction prices rose, and after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, so did the price of security measures.
Delta Air Lines went into bankruptcy, and the terminal’s original design team was fired because the then-general manager of the airport said its plans would bust the proposed $700 million budget.
By May 2006, auditors concluded that at an estimated cost of $1 billion, the international terminal’s price tag was spiraling out of control. A year later, the expected price was as high as $1.5 billion, even though it would be 400,000 square feet smaller than planned.
Now on to Reed’s "on time and on budget" claim.
Reed spokeswoman Sonji Jacobs argued that the mayor’s statement is accurate because the terminal met goals established during his time in office.
"Mayor Reed’s statement is true and accurate in that it reflects the city’s management of the international terminal since his inauguration on Jan. 4, 2010," Jacobs said.
One month after he took office, the airlines set a budget of about $1.413 billion, an amount Jacobs said was the only true budget for the terminal.
If Reed specified that the terminal met a budget goal set while he was mayor, Jacobs would have a point. But that’s not what he said.
Furthermore, when top leaders say in public that they expect an airport terminal to cost $700 million, taxpayers expect it to cost $700 million -- regardless of the technicalities.
Now let’s consider whether the terminal opened on time. The following account of airport delays comes from years of stories published in the AJC:
The Atlanta City Council voted to name the terminal after former Atlanta Mayor Maynard H. Jackson in 2003, soon after his death. That year, it was expected to open in 2006.
In May 2005, airport officials said that costs were rising for the new terminal, and its opening would be delayed until 2009.
After the design team was fired, the terminal opening was delayed until 2010.
But by 2009, planners projected an early 2012 opening. This date was just about right. The airport opened May 16.
Reed’s claim that the terminal opened on time was correct because it began operating as the mayor promised, Jacobs said.
"Mayor Reed and his administration never veered from saying that under our leadership, the international terminal would open in spring 2012. We did so," Jacobs said.
It’s true that the delays did not take place under Reed’s watch, but no matter how you slice it, the terminal opened years later than originally planned. If officials say it will open in 2006, taxpayers expect it to open in 2006.
Reed doesn’t deserve blame for the delays, or the cost overruns.
But the mayor is accountable for the highly inaccurate claim that the terminal was finished "on time and on budget."
Reed earns our lowest rating on this one, Pants on Fire.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "Airport international terminal opening set for May 16," March 13, 2012
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "Bumpy ride to facility's opening," May 16, 2012
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "Delta warns airport over cost increases," Jan. 18, 2009
PolitiFact Georgia, "Airport spokesman says new international terminal ‘within budget,’" May 23, 2012
Telephone and email interview, Sonji Jacobs, spokeswoman, Mayor Kasim Reed, May 29, 30 and 31, 2012
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