SAN FRANCISCO--The construction of the mammoth international terminal at San Francisco Airport was slowed by El Nino rainstorms earlier this year, but airport officials expect to make up the time and meet the projected opening date of May 2000.

"We're a little behind because of El Nino, but we'll accelerate certain phases of the construction to bring us up to date," said airport spokesman Ron Wilson.

The $2.4 billion project will add a 24-gate terminal across the front of the existing horseshoe-shaped airport terminal layout. The result will be a doubling of the size of the airport, which is the fifth largest in the U.S. and the seventh largest in the world, and an increase in the number of international gates from 10 to 24.

International traffic is expected to fuel much of SFO's growth in the future. Today, the airport handles about 40 million passengers a year, 15% of whom are on international flights. But by 2006, an estimated 51 million passengers are projected, 22% of them international travelers.

The new gates will accommodate the largest aircraft in operation today, 747-400s, and larger aircraft of the future. "The gates are being constructed so they can be expanded or reduced to handle 600- and 700-passenger planes being designed now by Boeing and Airbus," Wilson said.

Passengers arriving and departing SFO this year and next face an often bewildering array of new roadways and detours along U.S. Highway 101, which is being widened and reconfigured at the airport entrance. There can be as many as four to five changes a day in roadway configurations to accommodate construction crews that are building new on-ramps, off-ramps and frontage roads. However, Wilson said "the construction has not been a hindrance" to travel to the airport because builders are careful not to close lanes during peak hours. "We've designed the terminal project so that any work that restricts vehicular movement occurs at night," he said.

Several other projects are under way simultaneously. One is the construction of a light rail system that will link all four terminals, a new rental car facility, parking garages and the United maintenance facility. The system is projected to start rolling at the end of 2000.

The rental car facility just northwest of the airport is slated to open this November. Shuttle buses will carry arriving passengers on the five-minute ride to the facility, located on a frontage road off U.S. Highway 101. "To reduce congestion at the airport, with each car rental company operating its own shuttles, there will be just one bus for all the companies" at the facility, Wilson said.

Also under construction is a much-anticipated station for Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), which received necessary approvals and financing for an extension from its Colma/Daly City station to SFO. That project is not expected to be completed until 2002. When completed, passengers will be able to travel from downtown San Francisco on BART to the airport station at the international terminal. If they are traveling on a domestic flight, they would transfer by taking an escalator one flight up to the light rail system, which will carry them to one of the three domestic terminals.

The light rail system eventually will extend to the only on-site hotel at the airport. That property is planned for a portion of the site of the former Airport Hilton, which was torn down earlier this year to make room for new on-ramps and off-ramps from U.S. Highway 101 to SFO. The airport has started the bid process to allow developers to construct a 500-room, high-rise hotel at the entrance to the airport. Wilson estimated that a hotel could open at the site by the end of 2002.

Other projects in the works are the construction of two parking structures, one of them on the north side and one on the south side of the airport entrance, to accommodate 3,000 vehicles.

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