FAA backs R.I.'s Green runway extension


May 27--WARWICK -- The Federal Aviation Administration on Tuesday announced it is backing a plan to extend the main runway at T.F. Green Airport to the southwest.

The plan, to add 1,600 feet to the 7,100-foot-long runway, was chosen over earlier and more controversial proposals. Among other things, a longer runway would allow direct flights to the West Coast.

Earlier proposals called for extending the runway to the northeast, either to 8,700 feet or 9,350 feet. Both of those would have required a substantial relocation of Airport Road and impacted the Buckeye Brook wetlands.

The southwest plan has no wetlands impact, according to FAA officials, and would require changing the route of Main Avenue by curving it on airport property around the end of the new runway.

Although the number of travelers using Green has fallen steadily for more than a year, Richard Doucette, an environmental program manager for the FAA, said the runway extension is still needed. He said the extension would not allow the airport to handle more flights than it does now. The longer runway would allow heavier planes to take off, he said, and that would allow flights to the West Coast, which are heavier because they need more fuel. More people could be put on flights under certain weather conditions that require more fuel. Both would make Green more attractive to airlines, Doucette said.

The runway is part of a larger project to make safety and other improvements at the airport. Also planned are upgrading the safety zones at the ends of the shorter crosswind runway, demolishing a hangar that intrudes into the airspace of that runway, relocating a taxiway that is too close to a runway and, sometime later, expanding the terminal building and adding a parking garage.

The FAA will hold a public meeting on the proposal June 3 at 6 p.m. at the Crowne Plaza Hotel. After a brief presentation, officials will meet with individuals about the proposal, including what the impact might be to their property.

Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian, who has strongly opposed past proposals to extend the runway at Green, yesterday said the city might be able to work with the latest. "This is the best case they have brought forward thus far, so I'm not willing to say, 'No, I don't want to have a discussion about it.' "

The mayor said he still would like to see the new runway be 8,300 feet instead of 8,700, which, he said, would not require moving Main Avenue. He said he felt that Kevin A. Dillon, the head of the state agency that runs Green, has done a better job than his predecessors at addressing the city's concerns.

But the city still has concerns, including how the wetlands of Buckeye Brook will be addressed, how the city will be compensated for an estimated loss of $1 million a year in property taxes when homes and businesses are taken for the airport and whether the airport will find a new home for softball and soccer fields that would have to be closed because of the project.

The City Council wields some leverage in the process because it has final say on wetlands permits needed for the crosswind runway safety zone improvements. If Warwick's concerns aren't addressed, Avedisian said, "The city reserves its right to fight everything."

The estimated $475-million cost of the runway extension and other airport improvements would be split by the FAA and the Rhode Island Airport Corporation, the state agency that runs Green and several smaller Rhode Island state airports. The Airport Corporation's share of the bill would come from airport revenues, such as those charged to the airlines that use the facility, and not from tax dollars.

Carol A. Lurie, an FAA consultant from Vanasse Hangen Brustlin of Watertown, Mass., outlined some of the impacts of the project at a news briefing Tuesday. Many of the impacts that Lurie discussed result from aspects of the project not associated with the runway extension.

The southwest alternative requires taking 11 houses and 10 businesses for construction purposes. The two earlier alternatives called for taking 97 or 60 houses and 45 or 42 businesses.

The southwest alternative would impact 7.3 acres of wetlands, none of it because of the runway extension. The others would have impacted 19 or 7.5 acres.

The southwest alternative calls for relocating 14 businesses that provide 157 jobs. The others called for relocating 48 businesses with 358 jobs or 45 businesses with 421 jobs.

Noise impacts that would make properties eligible for acquisition by the airport would affect 134 houses under the southwest alternative. The others would affect 211 or 97.

Tuesday's announcement identified what the FAA considers the preferred alternative for the project. That does not become official until the agency issues a draft environmental impact statement, which is expected in the fall.

After the draft, the FAA will hold a public hearing on the plan, issue a final environmental impact statement, and then a record of decision, which would be expected about a year from now. After that, construction could begin. Work could be finished sometime in 2013 or 2014.

Green is one of three second-tier airports in New England that the FAA has said are vital because Boston's Logan International Airport could not handle all the air traffic that would fly there without the regional airports.Project in a nutshell

What: Runway extension,

safety improvements

When: 2010-2013

How big: 8,700 feet, from 7,100 feet

How much: $475 million

What's next: June 3 public meeting