Just weeks before the grand opening of the new Owen Roberts International Airport terminal, airport authorities already are turning their attention to the next project: Lengthening the airport runway.
The Cayman Islands Airports Authority has posted a request for proposals on government’s central procurement website and hopes to have contractors secured by June. The project will extend the runway to nearly 8,000 feet and strengthen the pavement to accommodate larger planes and longer flights.
The news was met with some skepticism, as many in our community wondered whether the expansion is truly necessary. Their watchful reserve is understandable, especially coming in light of project delays and cost overruns during the current expansion – a project now estimated to cost $64 million or more.
The longer runway would support many direct flights to London and increase safety in wet conditions, but why throw another $20.5 million at the airport when stayover tourism already is booming on Grand Cayman? Why, especially when there has been no clear signal from airlines that a longer runway would necessarily lead to longer flights in the near term?
The real question is not whether a longer runway would be useful today, next month or even next year, but rather many years into the future.
Extending the runway as has been proposed maximizes the airport’s current real estate at a relatively modest cost. It is a reasonable middle path between maintaining the status quo and a significantly costlier alternative, which would require building into North Sound.
Predicting future infrastructure needs can be tricky. On one hand, planners must be careful not to be too grandiose in their predictions or too eager to overbuild costly projects that far outstrip future demand.
But it is equally dangerous to be too cautious, which can lead to infrastructure improvements that, while still costly, are overburdened and outdated almost from the moment they are put to use.
For the past three decades or more, Grand Cayman has been on a growth trajectory the likes of which few jurisdictions ever experience. Planners have been playing catch-up to create an infrastructure system that can keep up with our explosive growth.
The symptoms are all around us: From maddening daily traffic snarls to the hulking George Town landfill, from patchwork public transportation to a court and prison system bursting at the seams.
There is no question that to keep moving forward, Cayman’s planners must get out far, far ahead of these problems. Their plans must extend beyond what is currently adequate or imminently needed to anticipate future needs.
As a public, we, too, must shift our mindset from “getting by” to recognizing that Cayman’s infrastructure will require monumental investment, careful coordination and a vision that extends far beyond what is adequate or imminently needed.
Expanding the airport runway is one small piece of a critical bigger picture: Developing a clear, comprehensive and integrated infrastructure plan that will carry us far into the future.