HOUSTON - Every time you buy an airline ticket, clear security and board a plane in Houston, $4.50 of your money goes to a billion-dollar project for a new terminal at Bush Intercontinental Airport.
It's an endless stream of cash that right now isn't getting a whole lot done.
"We have a piece of junk airport right now. It's a dump, Intercontinental,” City Council member Dave Martin said during a recent City Council hearing.
Martin hammered his point home a couple of times, saying, "It's a dump, and we're trying to make it better."
The city is focusing on Terminal D, the Mickey Leland International Terminal, home to airlines from around the world.
In June 2014, the council approved plans for the new international terminal at a total cost of $700 to $900 million.
Mario Diaz - no relation to the KPRC2 reporter - is the director of the Houston Airport System. He landed the role in 2010. His boss, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, had questions about the project when he took office in 2016.
"I did not have a great deal of confidence in what was before me when I came in," Turner said.
The project's budget ballooned less than a year after the council approved the project. Records show Diaz listed the estimated cost at a whopping $1.3 billion. Then it soared again to $1.7 billion.
But hold on for a moment, there is great news. The project is now actually saving hundreds of millions, according to Turner, who said, "Based on our extensive review of it, we have brought that cost down by a half-billion dollars, $500 million, so now it is at $1.2 (billion)."
Remember, this all started between $700 and $900 million, and now it sits well north of $1 billion.
So how is the project flying four years later?
At a meeting in September, Diaz announced modifications, stating it's still a work in progress: "These are just artist renderings. The actual design has yet to be formulated."
Four years and no actual design.
Turner said the original plan was flawed. "It couldn't handle many of the big planes, the big-body planes," he said.
However, that's not true according to a 2014 press release from the airport, referencing 15 new gates capable of accommodating wide-body aircraft, including the giant Airbus 380.
Architectural firm Fentress has been paid over $17 million so far for iTRIP, and Diaz is poised to bring in another firm, "a second team of architects and designers, which we will bring to you again over the next six to eight weeks.”
All of this leads to one key question that Channel 2 Investigates asked Turner: How did they not get it right the first time?
Turner said, “Mario, I wasn't here when ...”
When quickly reminded that Mario Diaz, his airport director, was and he was unable to get it right the first time, the mayor said, “Mario, things, I can't speak to that."
Comptroller Chris Brown is the city's financial watchdog. His take?
"Eighty-four million dollars, approximately, that has been spent to date. Of that, about $11 million has been spent on actual construction."
So what have they built thus far? A building to manage the project. As for the remaining $73 million?
Brown says $51 million of that has been spent on “program support services, whose consultants serve to supplement HAS staff.”
Brown’s reaction to a recent review by his office? "I would have thought we would have seen more, especially based on the $85 million on expenditures. I think that is part of the question as to understand fully where all of this money has gone."
Turner's response to Brown’s review was, “I agree with (the) comptroller and his assessment.”
The mayor also acknowledged the tens of millions spent on a design that “did not meet our current or future needs,” also admitting, "Yes, $80 million was spent, but it was spent on designs that were not going to make the airport competitive."
On Wednesday, a council member provided us the latest plan being pushed by Diaz. It is the same one he presented in September. It's interesting to note that, while the mayor wants an airport to be more competitive through a design with more wide-body aircraft gates, the new plan is for less than the 15 wide-body gates originally announced in 2014.
As for Diaz? He has been attempting to fly under the radar from Channel 2 Investigates. On Wednesday, we waited at City Council for several hours to speak with Diaz, but sources tell us he used the mayor’s personal elevator and back exit to avoid us. However, on Friday, Diaz is set to present his annual state of the airport address in downtown Houston.
Channel 2 Investigates will be there to ask him the same questions we asked his boss, Turner.
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