DENVER -- Formal groundbreaking ceremonies were held Wednesday on the windswept plains northeast of Denver for the city's new international airport, a $2.3 billion facility that will become the nation's first major new airport in 19 years when it opens in 1993.
Standing on a former wheat field with the city and the Rockies as a backdrop, Denver Mayor Federico Pena told 4,000 people who braved 40-degree temperatures and a chilly wind that the new facility 'is more than a regional airport, it is a significant contribution to the nation's transportation system.'
'It will be the best airport in the world because we will settle for nothing less,' he said.
The new airport, the first major new airport since Dallas-Fort Worth in 1974, will open with five runways in 1993 and expand to 12 runways by 2020. It will replace Stapleton International Airport, now blamed for causing nationwide flight delays because of air traffic tieups.
FAA administrator James Busey, who spoke at the ceremony, said the new airport would reduce air travel delays nationally by 4 percent, saving $5 billion by 1997.
Transportation Secretary Samuel Skinner told the crowd the new airport would be a 'fantastic contribution not only to Denver but to the nation.' He said new airport construction is needed nationwide because passenger travel has doubled in the past 15 years.
'We still have some hurdles, but what we're doing here today indicates we're at the top of the mountain and we're heading down,' Skinner said.
Critics have said the new airport, 25 road miles northeast of Denver, is too far from the city. They also have questioned its need because passenger levels have declined at Stapleton in recent years.
Gov. Roy Romer pledged that any opposition that still exists would not succeed. He said the project was an 'inevitable step forward.'
Groundbreaking actually began at the high plains site nearly two months ago, after the FAA approved a $60 million grant.
The future of the airport remains clouded by concerns over financing, possible suits over environmental impacts and the lack of an agreement between the city and the two major carriers serving Denver -- Continental and United Airlines. Romer also criticized the airlines Wednesday for refusing to reach an agreement.
Last week, Standard & Poor's warned investors about buying $390 million of existing Stapleton International bonds, a warning that could downgrade the credit rating for the new airport bonds. The city has proposed issuing $500 million in airport bonds next spring, the first of a total $1.5 billion the city hopes to raise through bonds.
President Bush Tuesday signed legislation that included $40 million for the airport's control tower and other equipment. The bill contains $250 million in discretionary funds for which Denver can compete.