HOUSTON – In June 2014, the Houston Airport System announced the construction of a new Mickey Leland International Terminal at Bush Intercontinental Airport. The city council approved the IAH Terminal Redevelopment Program, better known as ITRP, with an initial price tag of $700 to $900 million dollars.
Where does the budget for ITRP sit today? At $1.3 billion, according to Houston Airport System.
All of those dollars are collected through a federal statute: a $4.50 Passenger Facility Charge, known as PFC. Bush Intercontinental Airport collects that amount from each traveler and then uses it for construction projects.
However, with the project’s budget going through multiple adjustments, federal officials are expressing their concern.
“You look at the number of people from the Greater Houston Area that are spending that $4.50 every time they board an aircraft, I think we need to make sure that that $4.50 is being spent and used wisely,” said U.S. Representative Troy Nehls, a member of the House Subcommittee on Aviation on Capitol Hill.
He added: “I have all sorts of questions.”
Nehls’ primary focus is how your money is being spent on this costly project, “I think there are some serious questions that we need to ask the FAA.”
Nehls is not alone.
“I think as any project there should be an oversight. There should be an inventory, said U.S. Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, the representative of the district that is home to Bush Intercontinental.
In the months prior to the project get approved by the city council in 2014, Houston Airport System Director made one point crystal clear, “We will have cost discipline on this program.”
However, after the project was announced at between $700 to $900 million, it quickly rose to $1.3 billion and then soared again to $1.7 billion, before landing at $1.2 billion in 2018.
At the time Mayor Sylvester Turner praised what he framed as cost savings, “It’s costing $500 million less.”
A few months later, in April of 2019, Diaz was at City Hall reminding council members about the hundreds of millions of dollars saved.
“The overall difference you can see is about $500 million,” said Diaz.
When specifically asked by Councilmember David Robinson, if he and his team were forgetting anything this time around?
“Nope, it’s all there,” said Diaz.
When Robinson, the Chair of the Transportation, Technology and Infrastructure (TTI) Committee, asked if any extra money was needed, Diaz quickly shot back, “Nope we’re good.”
Yet two years later, the budget is back up to $1.3 billion.
“I always like to see the prices going down,” said Houston Controller Chris Brown, who is in charge of keeping an eye on the city’s finances.
The watchdog of public dollars said the city needs a transparent system to track real-time spending in projects like ITRP.
“If we had that level of transparency at the airport, for instance, we wouldn’t be wondering about what the total cost was, we’d be seeing them accrue in real-time,” he said.
When questioned whether or not it is truly known if the budget is $1.3 billion, Brown did not hesitate that he has questions, “Right we have to go back and audit it.”
What is Airport Director Mario Diaz saying? Nothing on camera. He declined a broadcast interview but writes, “I’m proud of the tremendous efforts our team has made to reduce costs.”
Brown had a different viewpoint during our interview, making it clear the budget is being adjusted again.
“This is the sixth budget reiteration of the budgeted amount. It’s grown to $1.3 billion after the full design of the project was in fact completed. So the cost increased,” he said.
Councilmembers also have questions over yet another increase.
“I’ll cut Mario a little bit of slack, but I hear where you are coming from. I mean the cost has escalated,” said Councilmember Dave Martin, who called Bush Intercontinental Airport a “dump” in 2018.
Councilmember Amy Peck said: “It’s definitely something we need to look at further and see why it’s gone up like that.”
As for Robinson, the council member who asked in 2019 if any extra money was needed? He tells KPRC 2 Investigates, “I hope there is an excuse. I hope there is an explanation rather than an excuse.”
Investigator Mario Diaz can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.