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McALLEN - Local officials gathered Tuesday morning to tout $26.5 million worth of improvements to the McAllen-Miller International Airport that expanded its terminal to accommodate more passengers and improve security.

The new airport terminal facility covers more than 100,000 square feet - double its original footprint - in an effort to alleviate overcrowding in the boarding area.

A new airline gate, in-line checked baggage system, two Coffee Zone cafes, and an airport bar called the Comfort Zone are some of the renovations. The expanded waiting area opened in November, but the security checkpoint was recently completed.

Transportation Security Administration agent Julissa Chargois checks a passenger's ticket Tuesday before he passes through security at McAllen-Miller International Airport. The airport's $26 million expansion is now complete, including new gates, retail and restaurant space, a remodeled TSA area and a new baggage handling system.

"This airport is a vital component to the economic growth of this region and will strengthen our position as the gateway between all other countries in the Americas," U.S. Rep. Rube• Hinojosa, D-Mercedes, said at the event.

The Transportation Security Administration checkpoint will feature a TSA Pre Check lane, where cleared travelers can take a shorter line through security.

The past-security waiting area features built-in charging stations and family restrooms. Additional lighting has been added to parking lots, with space for new rental car companies, as well.

"I look forward to using all the new facilities at the airport as I fly back and forth to Washington," Hinojosa said.

The U.S. representative quipped about memories of his freshman congressional term when then-President Bill Clinton visited McAllen in 1998. Hinojosa said the president's staff wanted to fly into McAllen's airport but there wasn't enough room for Air Force One to fit on the runways.

"So they said, 'Maybe we could fly into Brownsville and use helicopters to move him to McAllen - and that's what they did,"' he said.

Officials said they hope to attract new airlines and offer more flights as a result of the investment which included $4.4 million of city money.

"We didn't have to raisetaxes to do it, but with more airlines you get more passengers," said McAllen Mayor Jim Darling.

The result can be a multiplier effect, he said. The McAllen airport had 390,758 passengers through its gates in 2014 - the highest number in seven years and an 11 percent increase from 2013.

"With more money from those passengers, we get more landing fees," Darling said. While average prices for flights at Reynosa's airport are often lower than McAllen to destinations within Mexico, safety and convenience are factors for some passengers, Darling said.

"Considering what's going on in Mexico, some people feel that it's safer to fly from here," he said.

Of the total cost, $12.4 million was secured through Federal Aviation Administration and TSA grants, and $9.6 million will be raised with fees from the Passenger Facility Charge bond.

The fees come from a program that allows airports to charge airlines up to $4.50 per passenger at commercial airports run by public entities.

An art exhibit also on display through the end of the month features work created by children with cancer or blood disorders from the Rio Grande Valley will be in the airport gallery from the Vannie E. Cook Jr. Children's Cancer and Hematology clinic.

A passenger's checked bag passes through an explosive detection machine while on a conveyer belt in the newly designed bag handling system Tuesday at McAllen-Miller International Airport.

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