Proponents are calling the latest campaign to lengthen a runway at Craig Municipal Airport the "Craig Safety Initiative."
But City Councilman Clay Yarborough isn't buying it.
"Safety was clearly not the No. 1 priority," he said. "It was politics."
Airport officials have been trying to extend a runway since 1973 over the objections of many nearby residents.
But in 2001, the Jacksonville Port Authority struck a deal with the City Council to scrap any expansion plans in exchange for something more important: splitting the port into two entities, one to concentrate on the seaport, the other for airports.
At Tuesday's council meeting, Yarborough pressed Jacksonville Aviation Authority Executive Director John Clark into acknowledging that the 2001 promise was politically driven and not about safety for pilots and passengers.
"The main issue has not always been safety, as Mr. Clark always said it was," Yarborough said after the meeting. "It was something used to curry political favor."
Clark told the Times-Union on Thursday that decisions about Craig's runway have always been political, but that he hoped this time it would be about safety. He compared the situation to the levees in New Orleans, which experts had warned needed improvements but were left alone and broke during Hurricane Katrina.
"The question is asked, 'Why now?'" he said. "We have been wanting to do this for a long time. But sometimes the politics will dictate and determine the situation."
Council President Daniel Davis called the exchange between Yarborough and Clark "interesting" but said he isn't sure whether there is a safety issue.
"The airport authority has framed the issue," Davis said. "That's a legitimate discussion, if it's a safety initiative or not."
Yarborough and Councilman Bill Bishop, whose constituents live close to the airport, are leading the fight against runway expansion.
Their strategies include sponsoring a resolution against the expansion as well as a bill that would support changing the aviation authority's charter to require a two-thirds vote from the council to approve an extension, instead of a simple majority.
The aviation authority opposes both bills.
Supporters of a longer runway said that a resolution would deny them a chance to present their case. They believe extending one of the airport's two 4,000-foot runways to 6,000 feet will make it safer for pilots to take off and land. They need the council's approval because the extension would be a change in the city's comprehensive plan.
"Even if the decision had been made in the past not to go forward, the process still allows for the opportunity to change your mind," Clark said Thursday. "It recognizes that conditions will change."
But while a stream of pilots, aviation authority executives and board members touted the safety benefits, a master plan for the airport states that a longer runway could better accommodate business jets and bring in more revenue.
The site is more convenient for residents of the Beaches and upscale Queen's Harbour than Cecil Field on the Westside, which has runways that accommodate larger aircraft. Clark acknowledged the growing air taxi charter business requires longer runways for insurance purposes, and that Craig could be shut out of that market.
The authority's master plan also calls for an increase in air traffic at Craig. In 2006, there were more than 163,000 takeoffs and landings, with 327 aircraft based there. The plan estimates that in 20 years there will be 543 aircraft and more than 237,049 takeoffs and landings.
The idea that the council could go back on its promise not to expand any Craig runway has left many nearby residents upset.
"Why does it keep coming up again and again?" asked Albert Cherry, who lives southwest of the airport. "It was designed and it always was for a certain type of aircraft."
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