Providence Journal

Runway extension alternative presented

01:00 AM EDT on Thursday, May 31, 2007

By Cynthia Needham, Journal Staff Writer

WARWICK — The Federal Aviation Administration has thrown out several proposed plans for expansion at T.F. Green Airport and is now considering a scaled-back runway extension that would take fewer homes and cost significantly less to construct, while still adding nonstop coast-to-coast service that is considered critical to air travel growth.

The latest proposal, unveiled last night, calls for lengthening the airport’s main runway to 8,700 feet — 650 feet shorter than has been previously proposed. At that length, the runway extension would still take some wetlands, as well as homes and businesses on the south side of the airport, but it would avoid direct interference with ecologically sensitive stream beds of the Buckeye Brook and swallow about half as many houses.

FAA officials cite the enormous costs and logistics associated with four previous options, as well as the impact on the local community, as the reason for the unexpected change of plans.

They denied that it had any connection to Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian’s well publicized attack last week on the findings of their first draft study.

Since early 2005, the FAA has been researching the impact of expanding T.F. Green’s main runway from its current 7,166 feet to 9,350 feet, the length it previously said was needed to accommodate most airplanes large enough to provided nonstop service to the West Coast.

Four of the five proposed options called for expanding the runway to the south and burying the heavily traveled Main Avenue underground. At first blush, it seemed like the best way to avoid the wetlands to the north of the airport. But further research has shown that the Main Avenue construction alone would cost $112 million, thereby ballooning the overall price tag of expansion to more than $600 million, said Carol Lurie, project manager at FAA consultant Vanasse Hangen Brustlin Inc.

The accompanying public vehicle tunnel would also be the first of its kind in Rhode Island and the state Department of Transportation has indicated that it would prefer not to oversee its infrastructure, Lurie added.

That leaves two expansion plans now on the table. First, the scaled-back, 8,700-foot proposal would extend the runway to the south of the airport — to avoid significant impact on the wetlands. But instead of burying Main Avenue to create space for federally mandated safety zones at the runway’s edge, this plan calls for a graded runway, essentially, a runway that slopes up, so planes take off well above street level. It’s a creative way of adhering to federal safety codes, while fitting runways into congested areas. FAA officials cited several other airports in the United States with similarly constructed runways.

The state Airport Corporation voted last night to spend $500,000 to study the shorter expansion option. That analysis is expected to be completed in the fall.

The FAA says 8,700 feet is long enough to accommodate about 91 percent of planes that travel nonstop to the West Coast, including the Boeing 737-500 series, considered “the workhorse” of the industry and a preferred model for airline giants such as Southwest and United. Anything shorter than 8,700 feet would prevent that fleet from making the nonstop coast-to-coast trip, said Airport Corporation President Mark Brewer.

The second plan still under consideration is the sole remaining 9,350 proposal. That option calls for lengthening the runway to the north of the airport, thus relocating Airport Road and scooping up many houses in the Spring Green neighborhood. It also significantly impacts the Buckeye Brook.

The 8,700-foot runway plan would cost $469 million and take 152 houses and 71 businesses. That’s compared with $538 million for the remaining 9,350-foot runway proposal, which would take 339 homes and 75 businesses.

It was clear yesterday that the board members, who voted unanimously to study the shorter expansion option, preferred the scaled back project.

“By adding this additional runway length in the study, we feel it will enable us to make a much more informed decision on the future of T.F. Green Airport,” said Dr. Kathleen Hittner, the board’s new chairwoman and chief executive officer of Miriam Hospital.

Avedisian, who last week blasted the Airport Corporation and the FAA for seriously underestimating the impact expansion would have on the city, praised the board late yesterday. “I think it’s 650 feet in the right direction,” he said, referring to the length that’s been trimmed from the proposed expansion. “I’m hopeful that they at least looked at comments and concerns from the city. I said all along I think Dr. Hittner brings a new leadership and a new way of looking at things. I’m hopeful that we will continue to have an honest and frank discussion about what’s going on.”

Even airport critics seemed pleased that the FAA and the airport corporation were willing to listen. Michael Zarum, a Warwick resident and staunch opponent of expansion, said that while there are still major impacts associated with expansion, he, too, felt hopeful after yesterday’s vote. “It shows the process is moving forward,” he said. “I think they are moving in the right direction. Finally.”

The FAA will not make a final recommendation on its expansion choice until next year. On June 14, the FAA will hold a public meeting to outline expansion options and take questions at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, Route 5, Warwick. The time for that meeting has changed to 5:30 p.m.