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NFTA plans for airport in Falls face bumpy ride Some question need for new facility, which depends on gambling money not yet allocated

Operators of Niagara Falls International Airport are rolling the dice in hopes that new casinos and hotels in the neighborhood will justify a makeover of the 1930s-era facility.

The Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority is moving forward with a plan to spend $23 million on a new terminal and other improvements at the airport in anticipation of landing hundreds of charters yearly and snaring regular service from a budget airline -- all with the goal of bringing tourists headed to casinos on both sides of the border.

The airport currently has no scheduled airline and handles only 11 chartered flights a year.

The NFTA did not conduct a marketing study but has been using an action plan done by consultants to justify the expansion, said Executive Director Lawrence M. Meckler.

Assembling a financial package for the new airport terminal will be tougher.

The NFTA's fiscal plan leans heavily on $13 million in prospective revenue from the slots at the Seneca Niagara Casino in Niagara Falls.

The authority also relies on a process that is not yet in place: getting about $10 million from the recently approved state transportation bond issue.

Both money streams depend on quick action by Gov. George E. Pataki in his final months in office.

The project is not without critics.

Andrew J. Rudnick, president of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, questions why the authority would want to "use scarce public transportation resources to upgrade an old airport for scheduled passenger service when you can almost see" Buffalo Niagara International Airport, the region's main air hub, from there. The Niagara airport is 10 air miles from Buffalo Niagara International in Cheektowaga, which the NFTA also owns.

In the quest for state bond money for its second airport, the NFTA could wind up competing with itself. The Niagara Falls expansion did not make the cut when the list for the $2.9 billion bond issue was announced before it was ratified by the voters.

No format for applying for new projects yet exists. Regulations will be announced later this month for that process, said Jennifer Post, spokeswoman for the state Transportation Department. Then, Post said, statewide applications for money will be considered under categories such as aviation, roads, rail and commuter transportation.

When the process is finally in place, it's conceivable the NFTA will be asking for money from the five-year, $35.9 billion state transportation bond fund.

"We spent $1 million of authority funds for the design and specifications for the new terminal," Meckler said. "We don't have the funds in hand to build it because we are paying off the cost of building the new terminal building and extentions at Buffalo Niagara. Under the present arrangements at Niagara Falls, we are running an annual deficit of about $2 million."

Don Smithey, executive director of Omaha's airport authority, wonders if the stressed-out Customs and Border Protection agency will be willing to equip and staff a second air terminal in the region.

"How is CPB going to support a station [at Niagara Falls] when they're short of staff at O'Hare [International Airport, Chicago] and short at Kennedy [International Airport, New York City]?" Smithey asked.

>Concerns answered

Omaha asked for upgrading as an international airport, Smithey said, "and CPB turned us down flat."

Meckler says he has good answers to these concerns.

First, he said, Congress has been generous to the NFTA's efforts to keep the Niagara Falls airport open -- sending nearly $20 million for runway and apron upgrades since 1983.

This year, Reps. Thomas M. Reynolds, R-Clarence, and Louise M. Slaughter, D-Fairport, found another $3.1 million in federal money for the terminal project.

Meckler said the grant will pay for about half the costs for ramps, taxiways and approaches to the new terminal.

The airport is "underutilized" because of the limitations of its facilities, Slaughter said. Reynolds said an improved airport "will boost our economy and create new jobs."

Legislation allocating $13 million from the Seneca Niagara Casino's slots has been introduced in Albany, Meckler said. State Sen. George D. Maziarz, R-Newfane, the sponsor, said he has the backing of Senate and Assembly leaders for the bill.

Approval by Pataki is pending, Maziarz said.

After all the state paperwork is done, the NFTA must clear one more bar: a review by the law firm of Hawkins Delafield & Wood saying that NFTA bonds for the terminal are a good investment.

Approval by bond counsel is key to the NFTA's ability to borrow money to erect a modern two-story terminal. The Hawkins firm declined to discuss specifics about how long it would take the firm to review the authority's proposal.

But another attorney specializing in municipal finance said, "There are a lot of 'if comes' in this deal."

"This could take months and months even after the package is finally assembled," the attorney said.

When all this is behind the NFTA, Meckler said, the terminal project will be submitted to the Federal Aviation Administration and Customs and Border Protection for approval.

>Different situation

Meckler doesn't envision the difficulties with federal security agencies that Omaha's Smithey does.

Customs and Department of Agriculture inspectors can be shuttled from the nearby Buffalo Niagara airport to Niagara Falls as the airport's international charter business grows, Meckler said. The nearest international airport to Omaha is Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn., 291 miles away.

The only new equipment upgrade needed for Niagara Falls would be computers for tracking the identity for incoming passengers, said Kevin Corsaro, spokesman for the Buffalo field office of Customs and Border Protection.

"This won't take a lot of room," Corsaro said.

Right now, Niagara Falls International Airport has 35,000 takeoffs and landings a year. Private planes account for the bulk of traffic, with 25,000 flights; the next largest class is cargo flights, 1,300.

The NFTA shares the field with the Air Force Reserve's 914th Airlift Wing and the Air National Guard's 107th Refueling Wing. Those units account for 8,200 takeoffs and landings.

One of the field's attractions for big military and cargo planes is its 9,800-foot runway -- the fourth longest in the state and 1,700 feet longer than Buffalo Niagara's.

Meckler said the long main runway ought to attract more of the big charter planes that can't land at Buffalo Niagara, and Niagara's landing fee is a third of Buffalo Niagara's.

The NFTA's director of aviation, Bill Vanecek, said Niagara Falls offers further savings in terminal rent, amounting to $300 a plane.

Even so, Meckler said, international and domestic charters have avoided the Falls airport because of the cramped main terminal.

Because of more stringent inspection requirements, the existing building can't hold passengers inside after they are cleared for boarding, Meckler said.

"It all changed after 9/1 1," Meckler said. "You just can't run an airport the old way."

>Casinos a draw

The big draws since then, he said, are the Senecas' casino on the New York side and the adjacent hotel that is opening Friday.

Across the Niagara River are two more casinos and more big hotels.

After Niagara Falls, the closest airport to the New York and Ontario casinos with a runway that can handle the new Boeing and AirBus megajets is John C. Munro Hamilton (Ont.) International Airport.

Hamilton airport, Meckler said, is not as accessible to the resorts bordering the river as is the Niagara Falls airport, which is only a mile from I-190.

Vanecek said the NFTA, in addition to sounding out more international charter carriers, is talking to three cut-rate charters that schedule flights to resorts and gaming centers. Allegiant airlines, Vanecek said, is being approached for scheduled runs between Niagara Falls and Orlando, Fla., and to Las Vegas.

The other two lines, Vanecek said, are Air Transat and Hooters.

e-mail: dturner@buffnews.com

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