Study finds longer runway would have adverse impact       

Warwick Beacon Online

Thursday, February 22, 2007 



An analysis of the environmental consequences of a longer runway at Green Airport indicates noise and wetlands impacts far worse than expected, says the city’s principal planner, William DePasquale.



DePasquale further said the most recent studies released by the firm conducting the environmental impact study of proposed airport improvements, including lengthening Runway 5-23 from 7,166 to 9,350 feet, would not improve city traffic circulation unless the costly and unlikely proposal to extend Route 37 east to Warwick Avenue were executed. In fact the report finds, with the exception of extending the runway in a southerly direction only, all other longer runway proposals would result in increased ground traffic.



“There are no improvements to existing surface transportation that is already over capacity,” DePasquale said of the six options including a “no build” option.



The city had thought that a relocation of Post Road and Airport Road to the north and the realignment of Airport Road might ease traffic congestion. But traffic is a secondary concern compared to the overall findings of the study.



“I’m disappointed with the magnitude of environmental impact … shocked by the scale of the impact,” DePasquale said. He said studies show “a whole new set of people” will be exposed to high levels of aircraft noise by each of the options for the longer runway. Where this is most apparent, DePasquale said, are projections of increased aircraft operations several years after airport improvements are completed.



Carol Lurie, project manager for the consultants performing the study, agrees that the studies show significant impacts. She said three major areas are under review – natural resources, noise and air quality and land use – and once those studies are completed the question will be asked “do these alternatives [for the longer runway] make sense?”



Mayor Scott Avedisian said that none of the options other than not to build the longer runway are good for the city.



“The emphasis is on a bigger infrastructure instead of on safety and neighborhood concerns,” Avedisian said.



“They’re intent on building the largest possible airport for the smallest number of jets in the fleet,” he added. He charged consultants of ignoring the “factors we’re seeing, like fewer passengers and fewer airlines.”



The reports made available to the city in the last several weeks and reviewed at an interagency group meeting Feb. 6 is the latest step in the two-year $6 million study of airport improvements being conducted for the Federal Aviation Administration by Vanasse Hangen Brustin, Inc. [VHB] of Watertown, Mass. The recent environmental impact analysis is about halfway through the process. Lurie said there would be at least three public meetings, the next probably in May, before a final study is aired at a public hearing. At this point VHB is looking for feedback to the environmental impact studies so that it can move on to the next segment of examining means to minimize and mitigate those impacts.



The city is not a member of the interagency group and traditionally has an independent briefing by consultants. That session had been planned for Jan. 31, but was canceled by VHB.



Avedisian was irked that the meeting was canceled, saying “they’re more intent on the internal process than working with the city.”



By yesterday afternoon he had simmered down. He said VHB had called to reschedule the meeting in March.



While the lengthy reports are still being digested by the city – DePasquale is in the process of picking through them word by word – the impact of some runway options have filtered out. Steve Insana, president of the Buckeye Brook Coalition, was aghast to learn that options to extend the runway would eliminate between 10.1 acres and 32 acres of wetlands. He is further alarmed that options call for the relocation of tributaries feeding the brook – which supports a herring run – and the proposed piping of sections of the brook.



DePasquale is in the process of comparing the impacts of each option on a spreadsheet.



A response to the environmental analysis will be forthcoming from the city and Mayor Scott Avedisian.



In addition to quantifying impacts on transportation, wetlands and waterways, the report also examines the impact on fish, wildlife, plants, floodplains, threatened and endangered species, coastal resources and farmlands. DePasquale would like to see baselines so that environmental impacts are viewed from the perspective of what the airport has already done to the environment, not just simply what it is today and what it could be like tomorrow.



Especially troubling to DePasquale are projected noise contours if the runway were to be expanded. Most obvious is the extension of the high noise contours into Cowesett to the south and sections of Pawtuxet to the north. He is in the process of determining how many homes would be affected.



A longer runway, he reasons, would act to increase flights as it would give airlines the opportunity to serve more destinations with nonstop service. Yet this runs counter to DePasquale’s argument that a longer runway won’t be needed because of advances in technology for lighter and more fuel-efficient aircraft. Also, he reasons the market will dictate the service and, using the example that Southwest now serves Las Vegas nonstop, which was once said to be beyond the range of aircraft using Green, says airlines will find a way if there’s the demand.



On the other hand, DePasquale points to the popularity of regional jets and shifts within the industry that counter the argument that Green needs the capability of a runway to provide nonstop service to the West Coast. He notes that Manchester, N.H., has a 9,200-foot runway but only one cross country nonstop flight. And, pointing to Spirit Airlines that will discontinue its nonstop discount service to Florida in April, he said if they couldn’t fill planes at $59 “it proves a runway has nothing to do with it.”



The city has budgeted $150,000 in legal and consulting fees to examine, if not challenge, the proposal to extend the runway. So far the analysis has come from within the city.



It may be the time to reach out.



“If the impacts are truly adverse,” DePasquale said, “we must get some kind of independent review of this.”



Avedisian said it would be a waste for the city to retain an outside consultant at this time.



“I think we need to know what direction they are going in,” he said. When the options have been narrowed down, he said, then the city can better focus its response.