Sunday, Nov. 7, 1999 | 9:36 a.m.
Now it is just another large swath of desert land -- a dried-up lake bed uninhabited by people and unloved, it seems, by all but a handful of environmentalists.
But in a little more than a decade this desert area, 6,650 acres in the Ivanpah Valley between Primm and Jean, could be a major airport, bringing Southern Nevada millions of visitors and supplying tons of cargo for the entire Southwest.
The momentum to create a new airport 40 miles southwest of Las Vegas isn't in the desert, but in the corridors of Congress, where bills are working through the House and Senate that would transfer the land from the Bureau of Land Management to Clark County.
All four members of Nevada's congressional delegation support carving land for the new airport out of the BLM acreage on the California-Nevada border.
Officials of the Clark County Department of Aviation, which administers McCarran International Airport, and a private consortium hoping to build a large cargo facility are the chief proponents of a new airport. They argue that the rapid growth of air traffic at McCarran will force the need for a second airport in an estimated 10 to 15 years.
McCarran now serves about 33 million passengers, up 75 percent in this decade alone, Randall Walker, the county's aviation director, said.
The airport can handle a maximum volume of 55 million, he said, and at current growth rates the airport could reach capacity in about 11 years. The authority can build new terminals to handle more people, but it can't build more runways, Walker said.
That creates the need for a new airport, and there are few places in Southern Nevada to put it, Walker said. Land to the north of Las Vegas is off limits because its air space is controlled by the Department of Defense for Nellis Air Force Base.
A site between Boulder City and Laughlin was scratched because of opposition from Boulder City, which owned the land. Other areas are out because of their mountainous terrain.
One location remains
That leaves the open desert to the southwest along Interstate 15.
"There is no place within the bowl of the (Las Vegas) valley that we could build another airport, period," he said.
Walker said much of the planning work is yet to be done. However, airport planners envision two parallel runways and a small terminal -- at least at the outset. It could grow larger, Walker said.
The airport would serve both passengers and cargo traffic. Most passenger traffic would remain at McCarran, Walker said.
He said charter aircraft could be the first passenger traffic to be shunted to the new airport, and other flights would follow. Major airlines would probably stay at McCarran, he said.
The infrastructure needs and estimates for the cost of the airport haven't been determined, Walker said. He guessed that construction of the initial two runways and a terminal would cost a minimum of $500 million.
At least one expert said a new airport would likely cost twice that much. Paul Dempsey, a law professor at the University of Denver, said that proponents of airports often radically underestimate the ultimate costs.
"There has been no major airport that has been built for anything in that ballpark," Dempsey said. "I don't know how they would be able to do it for half a billion dollars."
Dempsey has written extensively on the construction of the Denver International Airport -- a construction debacle that, at $5.3 billion, cost more than three times the original estimate.
Walker, however, said the public won't be stuck with a bill for the new airport.
The county's public airports are not supported by tax money but by user fees for passengers and cargo and by revenue from concessions and advertising at the airports, Walker emphasized.
One investment group already has emerged -- a private partnership that is conducting feasibility, engineering and financing studies for the airport, but also is positioned to reap potentially lucrative rewards for its involvement.
More than two years ago representatives from the partnership struck a deal with the Clark County Commissioners that gives Dumez-GTM, a French engineering company, and Hamilton Associates, a White Plains, N.Y., financial consulting company, up to $1.4 million to conduct engineering and feasibility studies for the new airport.
The plans developed by the county and the partnership have been fluid. The vision of the Ivanpah airport today is not how it was described two years ago -- or last month. And the partnership is changing, according to Raymond Young, a Hamilton Associates executive.
Although Dumez is still a member of the partnership, the French company has scaled back its role in the project, Young said.
But the partnership still has an important role under a memorandum of understanding approved by the Clark County Commissioners in August 1997.
Under the agreement, the partnership has "the right to design, build, operate and maintain various elements of the airport facility," although ultimate control would remain with the county aviation department.
The partnership also is required to develop the financing package for the new airport.
The partnership wants to establish a commercial cargo distribution center at the new airport -- a warehousing and distribution center that would serve not just Nevada, but the entire Southwest, said attorney Joseph Brown, local representative for the partnership.
While most of the emphasis in discussions of the new airport is on its role as a cargo port, Walker is quick to stress that the Ivanpah Valley airport also would serve passenger traffic.
"We're looking to preserve it as a site for a commercial airport," he said. "It's not a 'cargo airport.' We're looking at a second airport."
McCarran would remain the state's largest airport, Walker said. International flights would almost certainly continue to use McCarran exclusively thanks to the older airport's relatively long runways, he added.
But some charter flights -- and ultimately other passenger flights -- could be diverted to the Ivanpah site as traffic demands grow on McCarran, Walker said.
Young is convinced that the airport can play an important cargo role supplying goods and services in what he believes is the wave of the future -- a fluid international economy based on Internet-based commerce.
Brown said a cargo shipping facility at the new airport would have one distinct advantage over competitors in Southern California -- the new airport would not levy California inventory taxes on cargo shipped into the state.
Shipping through the new airport also might be able to avoid U.S. import taxes if Congress would extend a reduced-tariff zone to the Ivanpah Valley, Brown said.
The cargo facility also benefits from its location. It is tucked between Interstate 15 and the Union Pacific Railroad lines.
"It's a site that will work," Walker said. "It has good access to the metropolitan area because it's right off the freeway."
Thousands of jobs
A cargo center could ultimately bring thousands of jobs to the region, help diversify Southern Nevada's gambling-based economy, and boost the economic fortunes of companies in Primm and Jean, Brown said.
The partnership and the county aviation department also have allies in the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.
Bill Mahaffey, transportation manager for the authority, believes that diverting cargo flights to a secondary airport will free up capacity at McCarran.
"This would be a good thing as a reliever airport," he said, pointing out that the current airport's capacity could emerge as a limiting factor to future commercial growth in the Las Vegas Valley.
Not everybody is a fan of the proposed airport. Environmentalists, locally and nationally, have emerged as the chief opponents of the proposal.
They argue that the airport would disturb conditions at the Mojave National Preserve, just on the other side of the Nevada-California border, and would encourage sprawl from the Las Vegas Valley to the state line.
"There are a lot of unanswered questions about what type of airport this would be, what type of flights it would have, what kind of infrastructure would have to be built to support it," said Deanna White, a Las Vegas-based organizer for the Sierra Club.
"Somebody, somewhere, wants this bad," she said. "There seems to be a lot of political pressure involved in this deal."
Environmentalists have some powerful allies in their effort to derail the land sale for the proposed airport -- including California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who shares their concern for the impact on the Mojave National Preserve, and the U.S. Interior Department, which oversees both the Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service.
The park service administers the Mojave National Preserve. Park service Deputy Director Jacqueline Lowey testified before Congress in July that jets landing and departing from the proposed airport could have an impact on desert bighorn sheep and the threatened desert tortoise.
Mary Martin, park service superintendent for the preserve, said the desert landscape would be irrevocably harmed by airport noise and air pollution. She believes that the time to stop the proposed airport is now, not when construction looms.
"If this bill passes Congress, the airport is going to be built," Martin predicted.
Walker, Brown and Mahaffey reject the environmental arguments against the proposal. They said environmental studies indicate minimal impact on the national preserve.
Brown said overflights of the preserve would be about 16 miles away from the proposed airport. He compared the potential problems to overflights of Red Rock National Conservation Area, a similar distance from McCarran.
While environmentalists fear that the bills in the House and Senate would bypass the environmental assessment process -- which normally has to be followed before a federal land sale can be completed -- full environmental impact studies would have to be done before construction could begin, Walker said.
Walker said the idea behind acquiring the land isn't to immediately begin construction. But one reason that moving forward is important now is to prevent any future development from moving into the Ivanpah Valley -- development that would derail or delay eventual airport construction, he said.
He argues that Las Vegas will have to have a new airport within the next several decades, and probably sooner rather than later. And the move by the federal government to transfer the land to the county may be the only way to protect an airport site that is close enough to the metropolitan area to be practical, Walker said.
Dempsey, from the University of Denver, said "banking" the land to avoid future development is a prudent move.
"It's not a bad idea because cities grow," he said. "To have the real estate in a growing metropolitan area is not a bad idea at all."