New Terminal Significantly Increases Capacity, Flexibility at Brownsville South Padre Island Int’l

New Terminal Significantly Increases Capacity, Flexibility at Brownsville South Padre Island Int’l
Jennifer Daack Woolson
Published in: 

Even though he’s not a native Texan, this isn’t Bryant Walker’s first rodeo.

In fact, his experience building and opening the new B terminal at Sacramento International Airport vaulted Walker to the top of the list when Brownsville South Padre Island International Airport (BRO) needed a new director to lead its $70 million terminal project. 

“The city sought out director candidates with experience managing the myriad of challenges associated with the design and construction of a new terminal, who could capably lead this project,” explains Walker, who now serves the dual roles of assistant city manager and aviation administrator for the city of Brownsville, TX.


Project: New Passenger Terminal

Location: Brownsville South Padre Island (TX) Int’l Airport

Cost: $70.4 million

Funding: Federal grants, local bonds, passenger facility charge revenue

Facility Size/Scope: 91,000 sq. ft., 4 gates (2 domestic; 2 int’l swing gates)

Key Elements: Modern, open design; electrochromic glass; new Customs & Border Protection facility; infrastructure for biometric technology

Airport Owner: City of Brownsville, Dept. of Aviation

Project Design: 2016–2018

Construction: 2017- spring 2021

Prime Consultant: Jacobs

Architect: Corgan

Structural & Mechanical/ Electrical/Plumbing Design: Jacobs

Fire/Life Safety Engineering: 

Lighting Design: Corgan; Jacobs

Engineer of Record for Construction: 
Garver Engineering

Moye I.T. Consulting, LLC

Biometric Hardware; Security, Self-Service & Display Technology; Seating & Table Charging Stations: Parabit

Baggage Handling System: Vic Thompson Co. (design); G&S (installation)

Seating: Arconas

Civil Landside: Ambiotec Engineering

Civil Airside: Jacobs

Roofing/Waterproofing: Wiss Janney Elstner Associates

General Contractor: SpawGlass Construction

Quality Assurance/Control: Davika Construction

Construction Cameras: OxBlue

Electrochromic Glass: Saint-Gobain (SageGlass); CristaCurva

Elevators/Escalators: OTIS

Passenger Boarding Bridges: Jetways, by JBT

Airside Passenger Buses: Cobus, leased from Port of Seattle Authority

Landscape Architect: SSP Design

When he arrived at BRO in 2016, the airport was in the design phase of replacing its outdated terminal, which was constructed in 1971. At just 37,000 square feet, the facility had two gates for two airlines—United and American—plus one restaurant and a hodgepodge of offices for airport administration, security and operations. The security checkpoint no longer met TSA requirements due to its small size, and mounting maintenance costs made it clear that the 50-year-old facility had outlived its useful life.

Bigger & Brighter

The new terminal, set to open in January 2021, is 91,000 square feet, with four gates that can accommodate four narrow-body aircraft simultaneously. The entry hall features an expansive 45-foot glass wall that bathes check-in, baggage claim and a meet-and-greet area in natural sunlight. The TSA checkpoint exceeds minimum design standards to prepare BRO for evolving security requirements. And the entire facility was built in a modular fashion to allow for future expansion predicted by 20-year traffic forecasts. 

Walker and his team focused on business and leisure travelers when contemplating the design and customer amenities for the new terminal. Providing convenient access to South Padre Island, less than 30 minutes away by car, also guided their choices.

Another key goal was modifying the terminal to accommodate larger aircraft supporting expanded international and general aviation service. This required increasing capacity for both people and planes. For instance, the previous gate area only held about 168 passengers—less than one fully loaded 737. Even before COVID-19, holdroom space was limited. With new social distancing requirements, there simply wouldn’t be enough room.

To accommodate larger aircraft, architects and designers positioned the new terminal 200 feet from its predecessor. “The existing airport is sited to only allow regional jets to serve the facility, due to the proximity of the terminal to the FAR 77 transitional surface,” explains Erik Strain, project manager and vice president of Corgan. “By constructing the new terminal further from the runway, it allows for contact gates to serve narrow body aircraft. This allows the airlines to use larger aircraft as demand allows. It also increases the potential for additional airlines to serve the airport.”

Previously, BRO’s Customs and Border Protection facility could only accommodate general aviation operations. Its new Federal Inspection Station, however, can also serve commercial traffic and is designed to process up to 200 passengers per hour.

From Concept to Construction

In terms of design, city leaders wanted a facility that connected Brownsville—which is just 15 miles from the SpaceX South Texas Launch Site—to the 21st century. “Transformation is coming to the city of Brownsville,” Walker says. “This new terminal provides the city and management team with the infrastructure to support that change.”

Working from a concept design report prepared by Jacobs that identified basic needs for the new terminal, Corgan held a series of design charrettes with the city’s design review board and technical advisory committee to develop a vision that represented the city of Brownsville. Architects then developed two different designs, and solicited input from area residents, travelers, local businesses and other airport users.

While design-by-committee is never easy, it seems to have worked in this case.

“They actually ended up doing a public poll, and the design that was selected is what was implemented,” says Ross Payton, a Corgan principal. “I thought that whole process of letting the region help identify and define the path forward was really interesting.”

The design was complete in November 2018, but the first of three construction phases began in 2017 with new and relocated parking lots. During the second phase, crews focused on building the terminal itself. The final phase, slated for completion this spring, includes demolition of the former terminal to make room for a new airside ramp and boarding bridges.

Each phase qualified for a different percentage of FAA funding, and the airside phase was not funded until September 2020 with matching funds from the CARES Act. The rest of the project was paid for with a combination of Airport Improvement Program (AIP) grants, FAA discretionary and entitlement monies, funds from local economic development corporations and $8 million from the transportation infrastructure bill passed in 2018.

One provision of the AIP funding was to use steel and manufactured goods produced in the United States, per FAA’s Buy American Preference program.

Given the tight budget, Payton and his team kept a close eye on spending. “Going in knowing what the airport was looking for, while also being aware of a constrained budget early on, really shaped the design decisions presented from the onset, making sure that we could get them aesthetically beautiful, but cost-effective alternatives,” he says.

Using the required competitive bid process, the city selected Jacobs as the prime consultant, and Corgan was brought on board for architectural design.  Garver Engineering was retained to manage construction from an engineering perspective.

“We essentially have a third party that wasn’t involved in the design phase that can review the plans and specs as construction is happening,” Walker explains. “Another benefit is load balancing to ensure we don’t overload the people assigned to this project.”

Although this arrangement is not typical for terminal construction, Walker reports that it is working well for BRO.

“It was a fast-tracked project, so we were able to serve as another set of eyes and to help with changes that came up during construction,” explains Jason Frank, P.E., Garver’s senior project manager and southeast Texas Aviation lead. “We were able to mesh well and had a good line of communication with the design team, owner and contractor.”

Together, the team produced a two-level terminal that features a modernized check-in area with self-serve kiosks. Other new passenger amenities include expanded Wi-Fi coverage, interactive kiosks and Parabit Systems biometrics. Designers planned the ticket counter system so it can be modified easily as BRO moves toward a self-service bag check system. Behind the scenes, the new building has updated mechanical, power and technology systems that are more energy efficient and reliable for the airport. 

General contractor SpawGlass used the Lean process, just-in-time deliveries and constraint logs during the construction process. Eric C. Kennedy, president of the firm’s South Texas Division, notes that constraint logs were particularly effective helping the team identify and proactively solve problems. For example, instead of moving chillers from the existing terminal as originally planned, the airport purchased new units to prevent downtime and improve subsequent operational efficiency.

Security, Sustainability & Customer Satisfaction

Payton explains that the whole design—from building flow to finish materials to the curbside canopy—is intentional and focused on the user experience. Moreover, the design team’s definition of “users” extended beyond passengers to include airport employees, airline personnel, Customs and Border Protection workers, TSA officers and concessions staff.

For international arrivals, the new terminal uses a leading-edge method called “bag first” that flips the traditional order actions occur.  Passengers now collect their bags before presenting for passport and identification checks. Infrastructure and technology are in place for touchless processing, which is something Corgan designers predict travelers will come to expect, even when COVID-19 is less of an issue. All devices, including biometric infrastructure and scanners, are integrated into a modern, compact podium with antimicrobial surfaces rather than bulky legacy booths.

Anthony J. Wanat, architect and project manager with Jacobs, notes that the new terminal accommodates customers arriving by car, city bus, bicycle and even walking paths. “He [Bryant Walker] spent quite a bit of time looking beyond the airport, going down the road, even several miles away, where the major signs are that direct people to the airport,” explains Wanat. “I thought that was very conscientious on his part to consider different modes of travel to and from the airport.”

Interior upgrades include LED lighting, lighting controls compatible with the Internet of things (IoT), daylight harvesting, individual room controls for heating/cooling and wireless access points throughout the facility.

One of the primary design goals was to “future-proof” the building as much as possible—not only in terms of capacity and growth, but also security. That included installation of power and data to support the potential future migration to biometrics. “As the terminal was under construction and suddenly we were saddled with the impact of COVID-19, it became increasingly apparent that our commitment to future-proofing was a wise investment,” Walker says.

Security enhancements include the improved Federal Inspection Station for screening international arrivals and a more secure card access system integrated with a video surveillance system to improve real-time assessment and response for security issues. In addition, every podium, ticket counter, gate and portal between security areas has cameras able to feed into a biometrics system, which can be activated once approved. BRO can use biometric access control immediately, but full curb-to-gate coverage won’t be implemented without airline participation. Similarly, Customs and Border Protection biometrics won’t be activated until the agency has approval. But the infrastructure is in place to support both upgrades, and in the interim they could potentially explore the use case for edge analytics.

Other terminal deployments will also support safety initiatives and the industry focus of building customer confidence. Silver ion countertops and antimicrobial films protect common touchpoints, and charging stations visibly distribute power throughout gate holds to support social distancing. BRO invested in automated robotic cleaning as well as cutting-edge needlepoint bipolar ionization technology to combat airborne pathogens.

Even before COVID-19 was an omnipresent issue, the project team focused on creating a clean, healthy facility. Beyond using domestically made products to meet FAA Buy American Preference requirements, designers specified recycled or natural products sourced locally whenever possible. One of the more innovative products is a huge wall of SageGlass in the entry hall. It has electrochromic glazing that provides automatic temperature and glare control to increase customer comfort and decrease energy usage for heating and cooling.

Other sustainability measures include relocating more than 60 palm trees to other areas of the city; crushing and reusing demolished asphalt, limestone and concrete; and salvaging existing terminal materials to keep them out of landfills.

Inter-Industry Cooperation

Although the new terminal is slated to open in January 2021, demolition of the former terminal and construction of a new airside ramp are not scheduled to be complete until spring. In the meantime, BRO is shuttling passengers between the new terminal and remote hardstand locations.

A 60-foot swath of new concrete created a lane for the temporary traffic, but procuring appropriate vehicles to carry airside passengers proved to be more challenging.

Cobus was unable to provide equipment on short notice, but company personnel connected Walker with the Port of Seattle, which had 10 buses in its collective fleet that were mostly sitting idle. The Port, which operates Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, will lease BRO two of its spare vehicles for the four-month interim between the opening of the new terminal and subsequent installation of its boarding bridges. 

Construction in the Time of Coronavirus

Local pandemic shutdowns occurred after crews had enclosed most of the new terminal, but they still influenced the rest of the project. Although much of the early design collaboration occurred in-person before the shutdowns, team members in Houston, Dallas and the Rio Grande Valley relied on videoconferencing and a building information modeling platform for sharing files throughout the project. During construction, team members used virtual reality goggles for clash detection and to visualize problems remotely. Drones and OxBlue construction cameras allowed them to monitor construction progress without being on site.

In retrospect, Wanat says that touring other facilities (before the pandemic hit) helped Walker and Assistant Airport Director Shawn Schroeder make decisions about materials for the new terminal. Seeing electrochromic glass installed, and talking to other building operators about its pros and cons was especially valuable. “I think that went a very long way to give them the confidence to go ahead and spend the premium dollars to have that at their facility,” he says.

During construction, the general contractor created a 25-page COVID-19 mitigation plan (in English and Spanish) to address new safety policies for the project. To gain access to the jobsite, crews had to enter through a trailer with an infrared camera that checked for elevated body temperatures as they passed through.

All 250 on-site workers were required to wear face coverings and maintain social distancing even when it was logistically difficult. Installing sheetrock on scissor lifts 40 feet in the air was one of the biggest challenges. “We had to come up with innovative ways to keep workers 6 feet apart using jacks and Plexiglas partitions, but we didn’t cut corners,” emphasizes Kennedy. “We got creative to keep everyone safe.”

Fortunately, contractors experienced only minor delays in material deliveries. In response, they reworked the construction schedule, used the wait time to complete other tasks and met the original deadlines.

Teamwork to the Finish Line

With the added challenges of working during a historic pandemic, it took a strong team effort to complete the terminal on time, in good form.

Kennedy credits Walker and Schroeder for their decisiveness. “Sometimes we work with clients who are hesitant,” he says. “But Bryant and Shawn were both very instrumental in making decisions and keeping the project moving forward. We were able to make it through the pandemic and finish the job successfully because of their leadership.”

Walker was also known for maintaining high quality standards. “Bryant has big visions for the airport,” says Frank. “This is going to be a crown jewel in the Rio Grande Valley. It’s a beautiful facility that’s ready for cutting edge of technology.”

When approaching the project’s finish line in November, Walker was remaining careful not to rush. “We want to make sure that we maintain a sharp focus and complete the project really strong to provide the highest quality terminal possible for the citizens and community,” he explains.

After the ribbon cutting on Dec. 11 and a few subsequent open houses, crews will sterilize the entire building, and specialists will complete security checks and operational readiness testing to prepare for the public opening in early January.

The project team is scheduled to complete the final phase of construction—demolishing the old terminal and installing the new apron and boarding bridges—during the second quarter of 2021.


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