HARTFORD -- After decades of opposition from Stratford, the state Department of Transportation has approved plans that will allow the expansion of the Igor I. Sikorsky Memorial Airport, the Connecticut Post has learned.
The multimillion-dollar project includes relocating Main Street east, toward the Housatonic River.
The work would let the airport improve its market niche as a home base for corporate-owned aircraft by creating a "safety zone" near the current blast fence, which was the site of a 1994 crash that killed eight people.
Airport Manager John Ricci, Bridgeport Mayor John M. Fabrizi and a state transportation bureau chief said Tuesday that the work will not make the main runway longer.
"There will not be one inch of increase in the length of the runway," Fabrizi said. "This is strictly for safety and liability. It will also allow us to reconstruct the runway, which is in dire need of repair."
But Rep. Terry Backer, D-Stratford, in whose district the 800-acre airport sits, said Tuesday that he'll try to create legislation in the waning days of the General Assembly to require the town's approval for the project.
"I don't want some bureaucrats in Newington making unilateral decisions," Backer said, after he was informed of the major road reconfiguration approved by the DOT.
Fabrizi said the deal was finally hammered out earlier this month in a conference call with the DOT, Bridgeport officials and representatives from the Federal Aviation Administration.
The mayor said that his Stratford counterpart, Mayor James R. Miron, had ample opportunity to join in the discussions. Bridgeport owns the facility, which is in Stratford.
"Stratford has been very non-responsive when it comes to this safety issue," Fabrizi said. "I'm happy that the state is finally pulling the trigger. It has been a long time coming and it has created a huge liability for the taxpayers of the city of Bridgeport."
Miron did not return two calls for comment Tuesday.
Rep. Lawrence G. Miller, R-Stratford, said the project is not needed because the vast majority of airport crashes have been human error, usually related to inadvisable flying in inclement weather.
"The airport does not make money," Miller said. "The runways are tight, it's by the water and there are many incidents of fog. They should just keep it for recreational fliers."
Ricci said the safety zone is an important feature that would make the airport more attractive to corporate jets, several of which already rent hanger space and help defray the airport's annual $1.5 million operating budget.
"The project from its inception was primarily to reconstruct the runway which is nearly at the end of its serviceable life," Ricci said, stressing that to get federal money, they have to meet FAA safety regulations.
Ricci anticipates 90 percent of the funding from the FAA, 7.5 percent from the state and 2.5 percent from the city, which has owned the airfield -- said to be the site of the nation's first air show back in 1911 -- since 1937.
About 220 planes are based at Sikorsky, and there are about 130,000 air operations -- including student lessons, charters and touch-and-go landings -- each year.
"This would definitely make it more attractive to corporate aircraft," Ricci said. "Our future is not with commercial aviation in terms of air carriers. They went from smaller turbo props to regional jets, which need the longer runways." Sikorsky's main runway is 4,800 feet long.
The realignment of Main Street -- State Route 113 -- would allow for an expanded safety zone at the east end of the main runway, at the site where eight of nine people aboard a charter flight from Atlantic City died in 1994.
The FAA report on the incident listed the cause as pilot error, but a mitigating factor was the lack of a safety zone. The pilot of the twin-engine Piper Navajo Chieftain operated by Action Airlines Inc. misjudged his landing in the fog. The plane burst into flames after it crashed into the barrier, just yards away from Main Street.
"If this had been erected back in 1994, they would never have hit the blast fence and now the blast fence is coming down," Fabrizi said.
The safety zone would include the construction of lightweight concrete structures designed to slow down aircraft that overshoot a runway. The safety zone construction would coincide with a $12 million to $15 million runway reconstruction.
The road reconfiguration, estimated to cost between $3 million and $4 million, is also expected to alleviate flooding where the airport abuts Main Street, which Ricci said was closed for several days following the mid-April nor'easter.
Ricci plans to meet today with state DOT officials and representatives from the FAA to discuss the issue in the department's Newington headquarters.
Officials will review the distance the roadway may be diverted; a time schedule and budget; and which agency will take the lead. Because Main Street is a state road, the DOT has jurisdiction.
Among the plans will be the process by which the airport may acquire about an acre of land, formerly a parking lot at the Army Engine Plant site, for part of the Main Street rerouting.
Ricci said a bill in the General Assembly this year that would have turned the 97-year-old airport over to the state apparently broke a bureaucratic logjam and led to the DOT approval of the road realignment.
Rep. Robert T. Keeley, Jr., D-Bridgeport, who submitted the legislation, said Tuesday that he wishes the bill had progressed in the session, which ends at 12:01 a.m. June 7.
"I still want the state to take over the airport," Keeley said. "But this is a nice start and I think my legislation brought the whole issue into focus, so it served its purpose. You can't have one little neighborhood stop a whole region forever."
Richard J. Jaworski, the DOT's bureau chief of airports and ports, said Tuesday that the plans for the roadwork have been in the works for the last year and a half.
"The roadway is being realigned for the minimum amount necessary for the minimum safety requirements of the FAA," Jaworski said.
He said the DOT has requested Stratford's participation, but has been unsuccessful.
"We initially wanted to get the parties together and be informed, to make sure people understand the current proposals, but the representatives in Stratford have been busy," Jaworski said. "It's a busy time of the year for everybody."
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