RIAC steps back, FAA leading airport expansion


This time it is different.

Indeed, the concerns over an expanded Green Airport are basically unchanged. What will it do to Warwick.s quality of life and how would a longer runway affect health, the environment, municipal tax revenues if upwards of 350 homes were bought and traffic, assuming either Airport Road or Main Avenue or both had to be realigned?

Those concerns were raised last Wednesday as the Federal Aviation Administration conducted a public meeting on the purpose and need of a $6 million study on the impacts of lengthening Green Airport.s main runway to 9,500 feet and making a series of less intrusive airport improvements.

And the questions of those who will be the most directly affected by airport growth remain unchanged. They want to know when they will be bought out or, if their property is not in the direct path of a longer runway, what increased noise and flights might mean to their health, their property values and their lives.

That.s unchanged. But the dynamic is different.

This is a FAA production.

Patti Goldstein, vice president of public affairs for the Rhode Island Airport Corporation, said as much when asked near the end of the four-hour-long session at the Buttonwoods Community Center whether any RIAC board members had been in attendance. Her answer was no. The study is a FAA project, she said.

While the FAA principally funded past studies of airport projects, RIAC was out front. The RIAC board chairman and frequently a number of board members, as well as the president, were not only in attendance but ran the meetings. They fielded questions. Not this time.

RIAC was basically silent. Goldstein gauged the mood and temperament of the session and RIAC Executive Vice President Laurie Cullen kept pages of notes on what was being said and who was saying it. She didn.t address any of the questions asked during the session. RIAC President Mark Brewer wasn.t to be seen.

Vanasse Hangen Brustlin Inc., consultants selected by RIAC and hired by the FAA, ran the show.

About 70 persons attended the Wednesday meeting, which was highlighted by its closing session, where elected officials and the public had the opportunity to make statements and ask questions. Such sessions have been a part of the process since Landrum and Brown, consultants who had previously directed environmental study efforts (about $2 million was spent on a study to lengthen both the major and crosswind runways to 7,500 feet), attempted to limit input to elected officials only. That action led to the birth of CAN (Concerned Airport Neighborhoods) and greater public involvement.

This time there is a heavy emphasis on agency coordination and public outreach to turn down the public volume. The process outlined Wednesday and again Thursday at William Hall Library in Cranston was presented to representatives of state and federal agencies that will eventually have a say on whether to adopt a draft environmental impact statement and selection of the preferred alternative (perhaps a runway extension shorter than being proposed or no runway at all).

As defined by VHB, the outreach will consist of multiple public meetings not only on a community basis but with interested parties and individual groups. This will also include the distribution of project newsletters to the public, updates on the airport Web site and documentation of the outreach process.

In other words, the FAA and RIAC are ensuring that no one can argue they have been left out of the process.

Further, as the approved scope of the study indicates, no conceivable impact is being overlooked, or so it would appear. The list of technical analyses to be performed is extensive, taking up five pages and including studies of noise, air quality, land use, water quality, social and socio-economic settings, light emissions, wetlands, endangered and threatened species, hazardous waste, surface transportation and historic resources, to name a handful.

Yet the study area includes .only the airport and the general area around the airport potentially affected by the relocations of Post and Airport Roads and that area located within the 65 DNL contour developed during the 2000 Part 150 Study..

Mayor Scott Avedisian detects a difference in the strategy of the latest thrust at airport expansion.

Asked about the absence of RIAC board members at the Wednesday meeting, Avedisian reasoned they were shunning the limelight and playing down their role.

As articulated in his statement Wednesday, the mayor also sees a shift in the purpose and need statement to a .marketing or business plan based on assumed conditions and anticipated future market demands that are not factually substantiated..

Those assumptions are that the demand for nonstop service will increase and that low cost carriers will act to meet this demand. Consultants forecast if the runway were lengthened to 9,500 feet, an increase of about 2,400 feet, airlines would provide nonstop service to west coast cities as well as London. Passengers served by Green are projected to grow from the current 5.5 million a year to 10.4 million by 2025 without a longer runway and 11.4 million with the extension.

Ward 9 Councilman Steve Merolla also believes what the FAA is doing is an .economic. rather than an environmental impact statement. He observed at Wednesday.s meeting that the word environment was absent from the purpose and need statement. He called on the FAA .to give us a footprint [on the maximum build out for the airport] once and for all..

That was a nice idea, as was Richard Langseth.s request as to how much the airlines would be asked to pay should the runway extension be built. A Buttonwoods area resident, Langseth has been vocal in questioning whether the cost of airport improvements will in fact force airlines to leave Green.

FAA Environmental Program Manager John Silva countered the claim that landing fees would pay for the improvements, saying the airport trust fund that is funded by ticket and aviation fuel taxes would underwrite costs.

.You.re way ahead of where we are,. he said of any financial impacts on the airlines and how that might affect service to Green.

And what of the forecasts, Steve Insana of the Buckeye Brook Coalition, wanted to know. How accurate are they?

.They are reasonable for the foreseeable future. No doubt a forecast is our best guess,. Silva answered.

Those from RIAC didn.t enter the debate. They sat silent on the sidelines almost as if coached not to say a thing.

Indeed, the future demand for services from Green is a .best guess..

The FAA, however, is directing the strategy of how the process moves into the next phase to develop and evaluate alternatives. It.s as if the agency is not going to let RIAC mess it up.