In the city's latest attempt to stop the extension of Palm Beach International Airport's shortest runway, Mayor Lois Frankel is asking Palm Beach County's transportation planning agency not to approve money for the project in its five-year plan.
But Deputy Airports Director Jerry Allen said Friday that nothing is going to happen with the runway extension before the Federal Aviation Administration completes an environmental study in 2009. Including the money in the Metropolitan Planning Organization's 2008-12 transportation improvement program will make sure it's available if and when the FAA endorses the idea, he said.
"This is just good planning," Allen said. "Quite frankly, it's what the city does and what other cities do. We don't build projects unless they're absolutely necessary and important to have."
The board of 19 county and city elected officials will meet Thursday to consider adopting the program - with or without changes. There will be a public hearing before the vote.
Under PBIA's proposal, the airport's 3,210-foot general aviation runway would be lengthened to 8,000 feet, creating two parallel runways to accommodate more commercial jets - one for takeoffs and one for landings. It would double the airport's airfield capacity.
In her letter, Frankel mentions that "close to $200 million" has been allocated in the transportation program for the runway extension. The number is false, Allen said. The program contains $4.1 million from the state in the next two years for study and design. In 2011-12, there's $82.5 million in federal money, $7.8 million in state money and $7.8 million in local money for capital improvements.
In all, $350 million will be needed to extend the runway, build taxiways, move several buildings along Southern Boulevard that house general aviation and charter aircraft operations and buy land for a runway protection zone. The remainder of the money is coming from aviation fuel taxes and passenger facility charges, which are fees added to all airline tickets, Allen said.
City officials have questioned if a second long runway is needed. Although the number of passengers using the airport has increased, data reported by PBIA shows air traffic has dropped 32 percent from 1989 to 2006, Frankel said.
"The Department of Airports has justified the proposed runway expansion on projections that PBIA aircraft operations will increase over the next 13-15 years; however, the City is concerned with these projections given that similar airplane traffic projections used to justify previous runway expansions have proven to be inaccurate and have significantly overestimated future airplane traffic," she wrote.
But the critical number is peak demand, Allen said. Hourly departures and landings could rise from 65 to 110. Without the longer runway, delays could reach 20 minutes in 2018. With it, delays would be less than 5 minutes. "We're just trying to be in the best position to move aircraft in and out of the airport the best we can," he said.
Before proceeding with the runway extension, West Palm Beach wants the county and FAA to initiate a "comprehensive countywide airport capacity management plan" to consider three alternatives:
- Encourage general aviation airplanes to use the airports in Palm Beach Gardens, Lantana and Boca Raton.
- Provide immigration and customs facilities at the smaller airports, ending the need for thousands of small planes a year flying from the Bahamas to stop at PBIA.
- Upgrade the technology in a new control tower to increase the efficiency of landings and departures.
Some of the suggestions already have been looked at, Allen said. There are 250 general aviation planes at the North County airport and 350 at Lantana.
The ones still at PBIA want to be there because the owners live or work nearby, he said.
"In fairness, we're hopeful a majority of the MPO will see the logic of doing the comprehensive plan first," said West Palm Beach Commissioner Bill Moss, one of two city representatives on the board. "There's a lot of other needs this money could be spent on."
Despite the city's concerns that noise from the new runway will affect more residents around the airport, Allen said the study has yet to show that's the case. And there's no plan to buy out more homes in these neighborhoods, he said.
"Our feeling is that there may not be a need to expand a runway that would essentially devastate one of the best neighborhoods in the city, which is our Vedado neighborhood," Moss said.
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