Traverse City News and Events

Traverse City's Airport Is Bursting At The Seams -- And Expansion Is Coming

By Craig Manning | Nov. 6, 2021

It’s been a year of record-setting traffic at Traverse City’s Cherry Capital Airport (TVC). In July, TVC had its busiest month ever, tracking just under 113,000 passengers. The growth has the airport eyeing the future – a future that, according to TVC Director Kevin Klein, could see peak summer traffic grow another 32 percent to 150,000 monthly passengers by the end of the decade. To support those numbers, the airport has to grow, and TVC is already making preparations for that eventuality.

In October, TVC’s governing body – the Northwest Regional Airport Authority (NRAA) – approved a significant parking expansion, set to break ground next week. And TVC is already looking at preliminary plans that could eventually triple the size of its terminal.

According to Klein, TVC’s existing long-term parking lot has 989 parking spaces. The planned expansion will add an entirely new section to the lot, just east of the existing long-term lot. The project will also incorporate a new EV charging station, underground stormwater retention systems, and restriping of the existing lot. All told, the project will add 327 brand-new long-term parking spaces, though Klein says TVC will ultimately gain 425 spaces in total, between the new lot and restriping. It’s a 43-percent increase in TVC’s long-term parking capacity.

“We were actually looking at this expansion prior to COVID,” Klein tells The Ticker. “We started having some basic discussions in 2017 and 2018 – just general discussions about how we were going to need [extra parking] because of our passenger numbers increasing. In 2019, when we saw our record number of passengers prior to COVID, our lot was exceeding its maximum capacity almost on a daily basis. Normally, we would fill out the lot around spring break, or around major events like the Film Festival and Cherry Festival. But in 2019, we started getting into month after month of a full parking lot, all the time. We were having to find creative ways to park, between short-term and long-term and graveled areas. So, we knew we needed to start designing a new lot during that time.”

When COVID hit, it put the parking expansion plans on ice. As air travel cratered on a global scale, no one knew when or if traffic trends would return to normal. 2021, Klein says, brought the conversation back in earnest.

“The fact that this year, so far, we're already setting records for each month, that just really brought to the forefront again that we need to get this going before we get into a situation where we're out of parking,” Klein says.

The NRAA Cherry Capital Airport Building and Grounds Committee voted on October 22 to approve a $2,130,156.97 Team Elmer’s bid, with costs to be covered completely out of airport revenue funds. Klein says all other relevant approvals have been obtained, so the project will begin as early as Monday. The goal is to have it complete by Memorial Day.

A longer-term growth plan will be the expansion of the TVC airport terminal. According to Klein, Traverse City-based engineering firm Prein & Newhof and Minneapolis-based architecture company Alliiance recently prepared a “terminal narrative plan” for TVC, which outlines a preliminary design for the project.

“The terminal narrative plan is a report that we have to submit to the FAA to justify going forward to expand the terminal,” Klein explains. “And so that plan includes forecast data for passengers. It includes an inventory of current facilities. What is working well? What is not working well? What needs to be changed? And we then projected out to the year 2035.”

Klein continues: “[Our terminal design] currently includes five jet bridges and two ground-loading positions. What the study determined is that, by 2035, we will need 14 jet bridges. So, [the preliminary plan] involves going from five to 14 bridges.”

The expansion plan would actually be a 15-jet-bridge airport. As Klein explains, the design would take the current concourse design of the TVC terminal and essentially “replicate” it two more times. The resulting design would have three terminal concourses, each with five jet bridges. It’s a favorable design for TVC, Klein says, because it would allow both for easy phasing of the project construction and for the opportunity to open or close a whole concourse based on seasonal fluctuations in traffic.

The NRAA has approved the study, which is the first step toward getting the terminal expansion built. There are many additional steps still to come, including a full review of the study by the FAA, as well as environmental and financial feasibility studies. Klein also notes that TVC would likely need bond support to build the facility, given that cost estimations are “$173 million to $250 million, depending on timing and how much work is completed [at once].” For instance, the NRAA may decide to build one concourse to start and then build the other a few years later, which would affect cost and financing.

Klein says TVC will probably “begin kicking off the environment studies and the financial feasibility study” in 2022. Those studies will take about a year to complete, after which a more in-depth design process would begin. With a comprehensive design plan in hand by the end of 2024, Klein’s hope “is to begin some construction in 2025 on the terminal.”

In the meantime, local stakeholders will have opportunity to weigh in. The Grand Traverse and Leelanau county commissions both have members serving on the NRAA board. The terminal study was discussed briefly at this week’s Grand Traverse County Board of Commissioners meeting, with some commissioners raising questions about how much air traffic growth Traverse City is expecting and how that growth will affect life for locals – especially homeowners living near the airport. Board Chair Rob Hentschel, who also serves on the NRAA board, noted that TVC is already the third busiest airport in the state (after Detroit and Grand Rapids).

“I think we'll continue to see those peak times of year grow,” Klein says about long-term traffic growth. “I can see July, in the next 10 years, growing from 113,000 passengers easily up to 150,000. On an annual basis, 579,000 passengers is our 2019 record. Our estimates [for this year], I think we'll be close to 590,000 passengers, maybe 592,000. So, over the next 10 years, we’re really starting to look at hitting 600,000 [annual passengers]. You’re looking at 1-2 percent growth, and that’s 60,000-120,000 passengers growth each year. That's a lot of growth. It just all depends on how healthy our economy stays, and whether Michigan continues to offer what the traveling public wants.”


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