PORTLAND – City officials held a groundbreaking ceremony Tuesday to mark the start of a $75 million expansion of the Portland International Jetport, the most ambitious expansion in the airport’s history and the largest construction project going on in Maine.

The project will nearly double the size of the terminal, adding 137,000 square feet of space. Airport officials say that will allow the terminal to handle an anticipated increase in passengers.

There aren’t enough gates now to support another airline. The project will add three gates, eight passenger screening lanes and a new baggage-handling system, which will be capable of in-line explosives detection.

A new pedestrian bridge over the road that passes the entrance to the terminal will allow people to park in the adjacent garage and walk directly to baggage and security screening areas.

City Councilor Dan Skolnik, chairman of the building committee for the project, said it is gratifying to see the project begin after two years of work on its design and budget. He said the expansion will make the city-owned airport “user-friendly.”

Councilor Cheryl Leeman said the expansion plan is similar to what a city committee she served on 20 years ago envisioned.

“My God,” she said as she looked out over the construction site, “it’s pretty amazing to see how the airport has expanded so efficiently and tastefully.”

Turner Construction Co., an international firm with a regional office in Boston, is managing the project. Construction started on March 15 and is scheduled to be completed by Feb. 1, 2012.

The project is expected to employ 90 to 100 people for 22 months. It was originally scheduled for completion in October 2009, but was delayed in the fall of 2008 because the nation’s financial crisis made it difficult to get financing and impossible to find a company to insure the debt.

The original underwriter was Bear Stearns, a global investment bank and securities-trading brokerage that collapsed. The bank was later bought by J.P. Morgan, which is now underwriting the project.

A federal grant and a $4.50 fee on every ticket will pay for the project. Passengers already are paying the fees, with the money paying down debts that will soon be retired.

Additional funding will come from rent paid by new vendors in the expanded terminal. The federal Transportation Security Administration is providing $9.1 million for security upgrades. 

Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at:

[email protected]