Officials broke ground Monday on a $102 million project to replace the nearly 30-year-old seismically wobbly control tower at San Francisco International Airport with a high-tech one that could help speed travelers to their destinations.
Local and federal leaders, including U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, turned over shovelfuls of dirt at the site of the new tower between Terminals 1 and 2 while a clump of reporters and other officials watched. Work to build the tower, which at 221 feet will be 31 feet taller than the current one, has already begun.
"The Golden Gate Bridge reminds us that infrastructure is the greatest gift we can leave to the next generation," said LaHood of the Olympic torch-shaped structure. "This will be the next generation tower."
In addition to being designed to withstand a magnitude 8 temblor -- more powerful than the 1906 San Francisco quake -- the tower will also be part of a technology shift in how planes travel. When it goes into service, projected for late 2015, the tower will include equipment that officials say will make travel faster and use less fuel.
One of the ways airplanes will save time and money is by using satellite technology to guide planes directly into the airport for landing instead of coming down in stages as they do now. Acting Federal Aviation Administration chief Michael Huerta said the old way is like walking down stairs, the new way is sliding down the banister.
The FAA will pick up most of the tab for the project, by forking over $69.5 million for the two years of construction and a third year of technological outfitting. The airport will pick up the rest for the effort that is at least six years in the making. Airport spokesman Mike McCarron said the need to replace the tower became clear when officials did an earthquake safety study as part of the Terminal 2 reconstruction. It turned out it would be cheaper to build a new structure than to bring the 1984 tower up to today's seismic standards, he added.
Once complete, officials say the tower will offer 360-degree views of all airport operations. At present air traffic controllers have some blind spots, like areas behind terminals where aircraft are parked. It will also boast green features like LEED gold design, solar panels and electric vehicle charging stations.
Like smitten salesmen, officials noted all sorts of possible benefits of the tower, like providing help in recovering from the down economy, better infrastructure for future generations or improved on-time performance. But they also pointed to a very real concern of anyone who lives in California.
"It also accomplishes the very basic function of higher levels of seismic safety, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee said. "So it's a win-win on all those fronts."
Contact Joshua Melvin at 650-348-4335. Follow him at Twitter.com/melvinreport.