Citing costs, RIAC trims runway plan       

Warwick Beacon Online

Thursday, May 31, 2007 



After maintaining for years that a 9,350-foot runway is needed to provide nonstop flights to the West Coast, the Rhode Island Airport Corporation reduced its projections and voted last night to study the feasibility of a shorter runway.



The action comes as consultants for the Federal Aviation Administration finalize reports on the environmental consequences of lengthening Runway 5-23, which is now 7,166 feet long, to 9,350 feet and less than two months after the governor appointed Warwick resident Dr. Kathleen Hittner to chair the RIAC board.



Last evening Carol Lurie, project manager for consultants Vanasse Hangen & Brustlin, presented the board with alternative plans for 8,300-foot and 8,700-foot runways. She told the board that those lengths were being selected because they would not necessitate the tunneling of Main Avenue to the south or changes in Buckeye Brook to the north. There is also a big variation in costs between a 9,350-foot runway and the shorter alternatives. The 8,700-foot option was selected by the board as the projected cost is close to that of the 8,300-foot version.



The costs of the two shorter extensions were tagged at $469 million and $455 million respectively. The 9,350-foot version was pegged at $538 million.



Lurie told the board the 8,700-foot runway would require the acquisition of 152 homes and 71 businesses. The 8,300-foot model would mean the acquisition of 133 homes and 71 businesses.



“We’re pleased. It’s 650 feet in the right direction,” Mayor Scott Avedisian said. Avedisian said the city needs to study the impact of an 8,700-foot runway before it goes back to RIAC and the FAA and “explain why 8,700 isn’t feasible.”



“They have spent at least $6.5 million already [on the study of a 9,350-foot runway],” the mayor said, “and we told them six years ago that it wasn’t feasible.”



Avedisian believes a combination of costs, financial and environmental, and the advent of Hittner’s appointment brought about the decision to look at a shorter extension.



“She is a realist,” Avedisian said of Hittner, “we’re lucky she is in that role at this point.” He said he talked with Hittner last week and was aware RIAC would consider a shorter runway alternative.



“She has been very direct that the city should be a part of the decision being made,” he said. In a recent interview with the Beacon, Hittner stressed that the city should know what the long-range plan is for the airport. Also, she believes in involving the community when those plans impact Warwick.



According to data developed by VHB and released this January, a 650-foot reduction in runway length would only marginally impact Green’s ability to offer nonstop coast-to-coast capability to airlines – the reason an extension has been touted from the start. With a 9,350-foot runway, 91 percent of the fleet would be able to offer the service as of 2012. That number drops to 84 percent by 2020. With an 8,700-foot runway, the numbers are 91 percent and 80 percent, respectively.



With no changes in the runway, the report estimates 65 percent of the fleet could provide the nonstop service in 2012, a number that would drop to 50 percent by 2020.



The city administration has long argued for the Rhode Island Airport Corporation to include a shorter runway extension as part of its environmental impact statement.



Based on its research, the city submitted an eight-page report to the Federal Aviation Administration last August questioning claims made by FAA consultants that Green Airport would lose passengers if the main runway were not extended to 9,350 feet.



The report prepared by Warwick Principal Planner William DePasquale found airlines could provide nonstop coast-to-coast service without sacrificing loads on a runway of 8,100 to 8,600 feet. DePasquale’s conclusions were based on industry trends on the use of aircraft that don’t need the 9,350-foot runway, new technology that will enhance aircraft range and consumer demands that would have airlines using aircraft capable of the cross-country flight if there is the demand.



At the time FAA consultants said a shorter than 9,350-foot runway would hamper airlines, causing them to reduce passenger payloads by as many as 213,000 passengers by 2020.



In his report DePasquale calculated the payload reduction associated with an 8,600-foot runway could be completely served by the addition of two new weekly departures from competing carriers using B737s or similar aircraft by 2020.



“We’re not changing the runway length at this point,” Lurie said last August. Lurie said VHB “needs to follow the requirements of the federal government.



“That’s the way we need to do it, follow the protocols,” she said.



Asked this past Tuesday if the scope of an environmental impact statement could be changed once the study has been started, FAA spokesman Jim Peters said, “The airport sponsor is working with the FAA that is working on an EIS and they can change the dynamics of the alternatives being considered.”



FAA environmental program manager John Silva added: “We need to have a sponsor of the project. It is important to have RIAC behind the project as it stands or for a shorter runway length.”



Silva is not surprised that a shorter runway length is being discussed. Apart from recent discussions with RIAC, he said, “From the get-go we recognized that the preferred alternative [for the runway] might be a combination [of options].”



Silva said consideration of a hybrid from the five options under consideration or a shorter addition had been included in the scope of the study.



“This is something that we foresaw as a possibility,” he said.



Silva said inclusion of a shorter-than-first-proposed runway alternative would not mean scrapping all options.



“We’re not abandoning all of the studies; [one] might be carried into the final analysis,” he said. Also, he said that the work done so far on the environmental consequences of the five options, which are to be discussed at a public meeting June 14, is “not wasted work.” That meeting will be held at the Crowne Plaza. A presentation will be made starting at 5 p.m. [it had previously been announced for 5:30].



Yesterday Avedisian questioned the point of the June 14 meeting since the consequences of an 8,700-foot runway were not studied and it now appears the preferred alternative is 9,350 feet.



Asked about the projected cost of the five options on Tuesday, Silva said that information has been developed as part of the study and will become available by June 14.



While Silva couldn’t offer a range on cost, he did say the proposed tunneling of Main Avenue proposed in four of the five options would be extremely costly.



He estimated the cost of a tunnel at $100 million, adding, “It’s a deal-breaker.”



As for who would pick up the cost of expanding the study for another runway alternative Silva said, “They [RIAC] are still eligible at the same participation rate.” That rate is 80 percent paid by the FAA and the balance by RIAC.



Told of RIAC’s action to consider a shorter runway extension Karen Kalunian, one of a group that has fought efforts to expand the airport, said: “It’s about time. We’ve been saying this for years.”



With reports by Russell J. Moore.