An airport improvement plan was approved Thursday but not without dissent within Palm Beach County's transportation planning board.
West Palm Beach representatives on the Metropolitan Planning Organization Board were concerned that the expansion of runways at Palm Beach International Airport would affect communities south of the airport.
The expansion plan was one of many items in the MPO's five-year Transportation Improvement Program, which covers everything from extending roads to street beautification.
A separate plan for an express bus service connecting Wellington to West Palm Beach also was approved by the MPO. However, the project can't go forward unless it gets funding, said Randy Whitfield, the agency's executive director.
Discussion on the airport expansion focused on extending a 3,200-foot runway to 8,000 feet. The plan would not increase the number of flights but would help move flights through the airport more efficiently, airport officials said.
The expansion would allow the airport to run 112 takeoffs and landings per hour, nearly twice as many as now, said Jerry Allen, deputy director of PBIA.
"It's like making a two-lane road a four-lane road," he said. "It doesn't mean more cars."
After almost an hour of debate, the board voted to approve the plan, although funding will await results of a two-year environmental impact study.
Board members William Moss and Kimberly Mitchell, both West Palm Beach city commissioners, were the lone votes against the runway work. Expansion would bring airplanes 800 feet closer to the neighborhoods south of the airport, they said.
"You don't take these steps until you look at all the alternatives," Moss said. "These neighborhoods are going to be very negatively affected."
Vedado, a neighborhood just north of Southern Boulevard, is one of those communities. Expansion would damage this relatively quiet neighborhood, Moss said.
Moss suggested that more of the airport's private-plane traffic could be spread to other airports, giving "north and south county an equal share of aircrafts."
Sixty percent of the aircraft that come into PBIA are private planes.
Airport officials explained, however, that you can't tell people where to land.
"People fly private jets for the convenience," Allen said. "If you can afford a private jet, chances are you're heading someplace like West Palm Beach. You don't want to have to land in some remote place then drive an hour to reach your destination."
The county is studying expanded operations at North County Airport, northwest of West Palm Beach, but runway extensions at PBIA are a must. If all goes according to plan, the expanded runway would be ready by 2013.
Still, the West Palm Beach commissioners said, they aren't giving up.
"We want a real comprehensive plan," Moss said. "We're going to keep fighting this."
Rachael Joyner can be reached at email@example.com or 561-243-6633.
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