Runway to Grow; Noise Next Issue

Jun. 7--The vote is in to extend the south runway of Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport to around 8,000 feet, but don't expect bulldozers on the flight line anytime soon.

They'll be preceded by more FAA paperwork and most likely a lawsuit from expansion opponents.

On Wednesday, those opponents were tired after rallying at a public hearing until the wee hours, cranky over their loss, and continuing to insist airport expansion is a bad decision. Still, though some observers expect the planned 2012 opening to slip a bit, the longer runway almost certainly is coming.

Commissioners heard more than 150 speakers on both sides of the airport issue Tuesday evening, then -- at about 1 a.m. Wednesday -- voted 6-3 in favor of expansion. In the next several months, they will tackle the complex problem of deciding which homes will be subject to jet noise serious enough to require soundproof windows or attic insulation.

Estimates are that 118 homes -- most in Dania Beach -- would be affected by noise in 2012, with 1,051 affected by 2020 as flight traffic builds.

The FAA will pay to help residents within a certain boundary, but many commissioners want to make it larger.

The county bought out several hundred homes as part of a runway expansion in the 1980s, but commissioners don't support a massive buyout this time.

One estimate of noise-reduction projects put the price tag at $730 million.

Dania Beach Mayor Bob Anton, whose family has lived in the Melaleuca Gardens neighborhood since the 1960s, said government can't compensate homeowners for loss of enjoyment of their yards and that noise-reduction projects won't help.

"I've got soundproof windows now, and I still hear planes inside from time to time," he said. "My canal behind my house is 57 feet wide. I can't talk to people across the canal when planes are taking off."

Also at issue: how many airport gates will be needed to handle increased flight traffic. This goes to the heart of the debate between those who favor growth and those who prefer the Broward airport's size and ease of navigation to that of Miami's.

Proponents said the expansion will address the airport's average flight delay of 13 minutes, expected to get worse. In May, the Federal Aviation Administration said Fort Lauderdale was one of four airports nationwide that must expand quickly to handle increasing demand.

"The most important thing you now have is certainty," said Broward County Mayor Josephus Eggelletion Jr. "You know where you're going to go."

Eggelletion predicted demand will eventually lead to the need for yet another runway, though, he said "for now, we are in great shape."

ELEVATED RUNWAYS

The selected runway option is similar to one endorsed by commissioners in 2003, during an earlier phase of a planning process that began in 1991. It will extend the 5,276-foot south runway to 8,000 feet, including an elevated section over U.S. 1. That's a concept that's foreign -- and a bit frightening -- to some.

At the meeting, longtime commercial pilot Mike McKeever said he fears an elevated runway is unsafe.

"This is a potential catastrophe waiting to happen," he said. "I would not use this runway."

But Rusty Chapman, manager of the airports division for the FAA's southern region, cited elevated runways in Las Vegas, Atlanta, Seattle, Charlotte, Memphis, Denver and Detroit They meet FAA design standards and are safe.

"Many pilots land on these runways with similar elevations," he said.

The $695 million construction cost will be paid by the federal government and airport revenues. Passenger fees will cover some construction and noise reduction.

George Platt, who co-chairs a pro-airport expansion committee through the Broward Workshop, said Broward needs more capacity to handle 22 million passengers a year -- and counting. "Even if in-migration isn't quite what it once was, we are going to continue to experience growth," he said.

Commissioners Sue Gunzburger, John Rodstrom and Lois Wexler voted against expansion, called for collecting more information and raised concerns about the harm it could cause.

"For a runway to impact a neighborhood the way it impacts Melaleuca, you cannot recover from that," Wexler said. "You can't sound-block. You can't mitigate quality of life."

Not everyone believes the chosen plan will ease delays. It lengthens the south runway but calls for closing a noisy crosswind airstrip, leaving only two runways.

That worries Robert Berlucchi, air traffic manager at the airport, who said in a May 10 letter responding to the FAA's draft environmental impact statement that the closure will create delays. "Gridlock in later years should be expected," he wrote.

PASSIONATE DEBATE

Tuesday night's meeting drew a rowdy crowd in dueling red and yellow T-shirts. Their protests were creative: Family members of expansion opponent Brenda Lee Chalifour baked a cake in the shape of a runway, decorated with plastic planes.

By Wednesday morning, all Chalifour had to show for her years of fighting expansion was the cake and a ticket for trespassing. She was escorted out of the Convention Center by deputies after ignoring Eggelletion's warnings about speaking repeatedly on behalf of others.

Chalifour, an attorney, vowed to fight her trespassing charge. All parties might wait until the FAA announces its preferred runway alternative later this year or next year to decide on any legal action.

BUSINESS IMPACT

Wednesday's vote won't end debates over the impact on the environment and whether the county made the best choice. Airport opponents raised concerns that the construction project will cause discounted airlines to flee the airport to avoid higher passenger fees.

But JetBlue spokeswoman Alison Eshelman said expansion is good for its business. Fort Lauderdale is JetBlue's fifth-busiest airport.

"We fully support the runway expansion because it's going to alleviate congestion at the airport, it's going to bring in more jobs in the community and provide more options for customers in the Fort Lauderdale area," she said.

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