On Friday, travelers rushed without stopping through the halls of Dulles Airport past blue panels that rise out of the floor, blocking part of the walkway. Behind those panels, contractors were working on part of a $3 billion facelift for the airport.
"There are going to be a lot of changes," said Tom Sullivan, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, as he paused in front of one of the panels.
The airports authority leases both Dulles and National airports from the federal government and runs them as private businesses with revenue generated from airlines and concessions. The authority gets no federal, state or county money and it's selling its own bonds to fund the project, which it is calling the "D2 project."
THE MAIN FEATURE of the airport's update is an underground train that will connect the main terminal with the concourse. Sullivan said the train will probably start running in 2007 and be expanded into a full loop by 2008. The airport is also building an underground walkway to make it possible for people to walk to their gates from the check-in area. Right now the airport ferries people back and forth on buses called "mobile lounges."
MWAA President and CEO Jim Bennett said the train "will become the primary conveyance and then the mobile lounges will become a secondary system to other locations in the airport where we park aircraft."
The Atlanta and Denver airports already have similar trains.
The airport also plans to build two new runways and a new air traffic control tower by 2008. An expansion of the concourse, expanded underground baggage screening facilities, a revamp of the main terminal and a widening of airport roads are also on the books. The airport has already opened two new parking garages and is building a covered walkway from one of the garages to the terminal.
"Our target is to have it all up and running by the very end of 2008 or the very first part of 2009 which is not that far away," said Bennett. "Growth is the primary thing. The airport has grown over the years and it will continue to grow."
Sullivan said the improvements were first discussed in 2000 but were delayed after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
By contrast, another $3.5 billion infrastructure project that impacts the airport — the extension of Metrorail — is not expected to be completed until 2015 at the earliest. Unlike the airport projects, the Metrorail project needs to get support from county, state and local governments before construction can begin.
"We understand that that kind of project does take some time," said Sullivan. "We have confidence that [Metro] will come all the way out to Dulles and even beyond."
LEO SHEFER, president of the Washington Airports Task Force, which promotes the airport both in the region and with airlines, said the project would upgrade "the infrastructure of this region so that we maintain a competitive position."
"It's always a challenge for regions to keep their transportation infrastructure on the cutting edge and on the aviation side, the airports authority has done an extremely good job for an extremely long time," he added.
Schefer also said the airport has been successful in working with the neighboring jurisdictions, Loudoun and Fairfax counties.
"A lot of other airports don't seem to even try," he said. "Or it's daggers drawn with the local jurisdiction."
For instance, working with the airport authority, the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors has agreed to keep a 1-mile buffer between the airport and the nearest residential construction to allay noise concerns.
"It's a great example of responsible land use," said Sullivan, adding that that may change with the new board now in place in Loudoun.
"Our concern is that those residences start to encroach closer and closer to the airport."
The Republican-dominated board embraced a policy of allowing more residential construction in the county, which could burden the roads around the airport. Schefer said a new highway west of the airport would be needed to accommodate the new residents. Right now, most of the roads leading to the airport face east, where about a third of Dulles' vehicular traffic comes from.
Route 606 also needs to be upgraded, he said. "Ultimately in 15 to 20 years time it needs to be part of a loop running all the way around the airport which would be eight lanes wide and limited access."
The 20-mile loop would incorporate segments of Route 50 and route 28, he added.
At the same time, Schefer said a new Potomac crossing would make it easier for Maryland residents to use the airport.