DESPITE LOST BATTLES, RESIDENTS FIGHT ON TO HALT PBIA GROWTH

After spending two decades battling airport growth, residents living under Palm Beach International Airport's flight path are gearing up for their most challenging fight yet -- convincing federal and county officials that the airport's shortest runway...


After spending two decades battling airport growth, residents living under Palm Beach International Airport's flight path are gearing up for their most challenging fight yet -- convincing federal and county officials that the airport's shortest runway does not need to be extended.

They have started their own Web site, enlisted a West Palm Beach transportation planner to help them analyze flight data and are using the Internet to spread messages about the project quickly.

Over the years, most of their fights to limit airport growth and noise have been unsuccessful.

An entire West Palm Beach neighborhood was demolished because the planes flying overhead were too loud. Four interchanges were built on Interstate 95 to carry passengers in and out of the airport, despite their protests.

But this time around, they say they are more organized and better positioned to fight.

"We have been doing this for so long, and we haven't quit," said Jim Young, a longtime West Palm Beach resident whose childhood home was lost to the airport.

"We just feel like we can't," said Young's wife, Lila. "There is too much at stake."

But the chips are stacked against them. And it appears unlikely they will be able to stop the project completely.

The Federal Aviation Administration began a three-year, $2.8 million environmental study of the extension plan in February. The agency doesn't conduct the costly studies, required for every airport improvement project nationwide, unless there is "a reasonable chance for success."

FAA officials say they cannot recall a situation where they denied an improvement project as a result of the environmental study. But a majority of them are modified before they are built based on information gathered during the review.

As part of the study, the FAA is required to consider a series of alternatives: relocating the runway, not building it at all or moving the entire airport someplace else.

But none of those alternatives is very likely, according to airport and federal officials.

Space on the airfield is limited, making it extremely difficult and costly to build a longer runway anywhere else there, airport officials said. Moving the airport would be even more expensive.

Meanwhile, a study released by the FAA this year shows that Palm Beach International is one of 18 U.S. airports that won't have enough space for planes if improvements aren't made by 2015.

Residents undaunted

Residents say they aren't dismayed by the discouraging statistics.

Jose Rodriguez, president of the Vedado neighborhood, which sits next to the demolished Hillcrest neighborhood, hopes to sway county commissioners to vote against the extension plan.

If the FAA signs off, the plan will be sent to the commission for final approval, airport officials said. The airport is owned and operated by the county.

"I think the county commission needs to take a deep look at this," Rodriguez said. "Right now, the commissioners are sleeping, and they just vote on anything that is fed to them."

Residents will get their next chance to sound off on the extension Nov. 27, when the FAA holds a public workshop to discuss alternatives to the proposed extension. The meeting will be from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Airport Hilton, 150 Australian Ave.

The project would extend the airport's general aviation runway from 3,210 to 8,000 feet, allowing it to accommodate commercial jets. Airport officials hope to open the new runway by 2014.

The extension would allow more planes to take off and land at the airport by creating parallel runways, one for takeoffs and one for landings. One plane could take off at the same time another is landing.

Aviation officials say it's the most efficient way to move airplanes because air traffic controllers don't have to worry about coordinating arrivals and departures on a single runway. A second commercial runway would allow planes to take off and land more quickly, reducing delays, they say.

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