County approves runway at Fort Lauderdale airport, but legal turbulence looms

A 20-year battle isn't over yet

Jun. 7--Numerous hurdles remain before the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport can expand, even though in the pre-dawn hours Wednesday Broward County commissioners approved construction of a second major runway.

The Federal Aviation Administration still must agree to the $695 million project. Nearby residents and environmental activists vow legal fights. And then there is the physical challenge of building a sloped runway over Federal Highway and the Florida East Coast Railway.

The FAA's decision could come by next spring. Although the county then hopes to begin design and construction work, the FAA decision would clear the way for a federal court battle over the need for the runway and its impact on the community.

The County Commission made its decision after 1 a.m., following 61/2 hours of an often-emotional discussion at a packed Broward County Convention Center.

"We come to a decision that is long overdue and one which no one takes lightly," Broward County Mayor Josephus Eggelletion said.

The commission had waffled on the runway for two decades but agreed in a 6-3 vote to lengthen to 8,000 feet the commuter runway on the airport's southern side. If air traffic grows as expected, consultants think average delay times would be six times shorter with the expanded runway than if nothing were done. The current south runway is too short for major commercial jets and is used primarily by private aircraft.

In addition to the construction cost, the county will have to buy or soundproof the homes of almost 2,500 nearby residents because of increased noise. Both the runway and neighborhood work will be paid for through state and federal grants and increased landing fees and passenger charges.

Nearby communities and activists who opposed the plan vowed Wednesday to continue their fight.

"This is a war, and the next battle begins now," said Brenda Chalifour, an environmentalist who was arrested for trespassing after she tried to speak during the meeting without permission. "The county has sold out, but this is not the end."

The opponents' first focus will be to pursue their concerns with other government offices, including the Environmental Protection Agency and the South Florida Water Management District. The county and FAA must address any issues raised by those groups before the FAA can make its decision.

Leaders from Dania Beach also said they would explore a court challenge. Although the city signed an agreement with the county to support the runway in the mid-1990s, they question whether it's still valid.

"I'm frustrated and aggravated," Dania Beach Mayor Bob Anton said Wednesday. "The information they are working with is clearly flawed, but here they're talking about spending billions of dollars to do this."

In choosing the 8,000-foot option, the commission rejected calls that they should: do nothing; lengthen the 5,276-foot south runway, but by a shorter distance; or build a new runway just north of the main runway.

Eggelletion was joined by Commissioners Stacy Ritter, Ken Keechl, Ilene Lieberman, Kristin Jacobs and Diana Wasserman-Rubin in favoring the long runway. Commissioners John Rodstrom, Suzanne Gunzburger and Lois Wexler opposed it.

Commissioners who supported the 8,000-foot runway said they want limits on its use, including restriction on late-night flights, to reduce noise. They said they would not force residents to sell homes, but would develop a program of buyouts or soundproofing.

Barring delays, the runway would open by 2014, even though officials hope to speed that up to 2012. Passenger growth is projected to grow to 30.8 million in 2020, compared with 21.4 million last year.

In addition to requiring a tunnel for the railroad and highway, the runway would slope slightly upward west to east to reach a height of 45 feet above the train tracks. More than 6 million cubic yards of dirt would be required.

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