New airport planned for Panama City, Fla.

Sept. 23, 2008
Bids now on the table; targeted for May 2010 completion

Sep. 21--WEST BAY -- Airport Authority ll face a crucial decision Tuesday on construction of the Panama City-Bay national Airport. Members must decide whether to accept the lowest construction bid, at $68.5 million, for the airport terminal and other buildings, which initially came in about $14 million over budget. Authority members have negotiated with terminal bidder Walbridge to trim about $5 million from the proposal, but another $5 million needs to come off the cost, board member Rick Koehnemann said Friday. If an agreement cannot be reached, the terminal project may have to be rebid, endangering the airport's May 2010 completion date, airport officials said. The decision comes down to trimming the extra money from the terminal cost or forgo extending the proposed 8,400-foot runway to 10,000 feet, a length that would accommodate larger international flights, Koehnemann said.

"We need to reduce it by $10 million," Koehnemann said of the bid. "We need it for the 10,000-foot runway."

Board members are struggling with the age-old problem facing any family sitting around a dinner table, authority member Bill Cramer said Friday. They must decide how to align their wants with their needs, building the best possible airport for the area within their $330 million budget.

"It is a matter of priorities," he said.

Other considerations

The terminal is only one example of the decisions airport officials face, Cramer said. Members also are struggling with whether the airport needs a crosswind runway, which enhances safety, as well as whether they can afford center lighting for the main runway, which pilots of larger flights have come to expect.

"We need to spend the appropriate amount," Cramer said. "But we need to spend what we can afford."

An earlier decision to use concrete rather than asphalt for the 8,400-foot runway increased the runway cost by a little more than $5 million, or $88.1 million versus $93.4 million. Extending the concrete runway to 10,000 feet would add an additional $4.5 million.

The board also faces whether to construct the runway to a depth of 15 concrete inches rather than 14 inches, at a cost $593,581 above the original estimate. The extra inch adds longevity.

Board attorney Michael Duncan told members at their last gathering that a decision on awarding the terminal contract should be made by Tuesday or the bidding process should be extended.

The contract not only includes the traditional terminal building, but other structures such as the air traffic control tower, a public safety building, an air cargo facility and rental car area.

Koehnemann said a "value engineering" meeting with Walbridge netted savings after a give-and-take process where "we had some ideas and they had some ideas, item by item. Some things were acceptable by the board and some things weren't."

Money was saved, for example, by agreeing to purchase materials through the airport, as well as by jettisoning a cosmetic facade.

Walbridge senior vice president David Hanson has warned members that any delay could cost, rather than save, money. Part of the reason the original bid was higher than anticipated, Hanson said at an earlier meeting, is the cost of materials such as metals and concrete continues to creep up.

"I expect they will continue going up," Hanson said Friday. "Especially in today's financial climate, it is very difficult to project future costs. It's a risk."

Cramer said authority members will be briefed by all the relevant parties, including their financial, construction and legal teams, before making a decision.

As for what might happen Tuesday, Koehnemann was philosophical.

"I don't know how it's all going to play out," he said.

Copyright (c) 2008, The News Herald, Panama City, Fla. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.