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Editorial: Lambert airport upgrade is overdue, and regional cooperation could speed it up

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Rendering of redesigned airport terminal

This rendering depicts a redesigned main terminal of St. Louis Lambert International Airport with a reconfigured check-in lobby, new concourse, new security screening space and new baggage claim area.

(WSP USA/St. Louis Lambert International Airport)

Preliminary sketches for a redesigned and consolidated St. Louis Lambert International Airport offer hope for residents throughout the region that future air travel won’t continue to be the embarrassing hassle that it is today. As important as it is for visitors coming by car to be wowed by their first view of the Gateway Arch, they need their arrival at Lambert to be a positive experience they won’t forget, instead of leaving with memories of underutilized restaurant spaces, tight corridors, poorly functioning baggage-claim areas and an overall unimpressive appearance.

Former Mayor Lyda Krewson was correct in her assessment that something had to be done to upgrade the airport. If not, major airlines would route their business elsewhere. It was Krewson’s methodology — that the necessary upgrades could only happen through privatization — that caused her effort to fall apart. Though the privatization effort is dead, the need to modernize the airport is very much alive.

A benefit of the privatization discussions was that developers scrambled to offer designs and outlines of how to fix what’s wrong with the airport. Those visions also need to be kept alive.

Under a proposed new design, the airport’s two terminals would be consolidated into a single building, eliminating the need for passengers transiting between terminals to exit the airport and pass through security a second time just to catch a connecting flight. Corridors would be widened. The number of gates would expand to 62 in a single concourse versus the current 54, the Post-Dispatch’s Mark Schlinkmann reports. The check-in lobby would be centralized under the four arched domes that have been iconic features of the airport since 1956.

There are, of course, lots of sticking points. The renovation could take up 20 years. Disruptions would be substantial. The airlines would need to be consulted since their operations would no doubt be affected during the transition. And the price tag is serious: $1 billion.

Therein lies opportunity for St. Louis city to envision partnerships with its surrounding neighbors — particularly St. Charles and St. Louis counties, whose residents provide the bulk of local Lambert users. St. Louis city jealously guards its dominion over Lambert operating revenues, while St. Louis County protects the sales taxes from concessions there. Affluent and growing St. Charles County has been left with no input into major airport decisions, which has so irked Republican County Executive Steve Ehlmann that he has sought intervention from the state Legislature to give his residents a greater say.

Given the GOP-dominated Legislature’s trajectory, it’s only a matter of time before lawmakers find a way to reduce the city’s sovereign domain and impose a solution more to the liking of people like Ehlmann.

Regional cooperation can’t come without sacrifices and compromises on everyone’s part. Lambert’s expensive upgrade seems like as good a place as any for that conversation to begin.

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