Federal officials Tuesday planted the seeds for a second commercial airport in metro Atlanta, and in doing so, launched what will likely be a long-running debate about where it should be located.
"Now is the time for Atlanta to consider having multiple commercial airports," U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters told reporters at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport as she announced a $1 million grant to study capacity expansion in Atlanta.
Peters joined Federal Aviation Administration chief Marion Blakey, who presented the results of a study that found major U.S. cities must expand their airports or build new ones in the next 20 years to keep pace with an ever-increasing demand for air travel. Blakey said the nation might need to build up to four more major commercial airports during the next three decades.
"Atlanta, Chicago, Las Vegas and San Diego are among the likely candidates," Blakey wrote in the preface of the FAA report, "Capacity Needs in the National Airspace System."
Hartsfield-Jackson currently is the world's busiest airport, with about 86 million passengers a year --- but one reason it is so busy is that, unlike in some other major metro areas, it is the lone commercial airport for the region.
A second Atlanta airport is a far-off idea --- the just-announced study could take two years. And if that study calls for a new airfield, it could be two decades before jets land on its runways.
But the idea that the Atlanta metro area could get a second commercial airport has rekindled the old north-south debate: Should it be built on the south side, which has fewer residents to complain and cheaper, more available land, or on the fast-growing north side, closer to the passengers who will use it? The discussion is likely to continue for years as private citizens, aviation experts, politicians and pundits join the fray.
"They'll have to put it on the north side," said Vinings resident Kevin Jones, a senior loan officer who frequently flies out of Atlanta on business. "Why put another one on the south side? We've got one there already."
The man who runs Hartsfield-Jackson has --- in the past --- hinted at a possible south metro location, but was not taking sides Tuesday. Even if a second airport becomes a reality, Hartsfield-Jackson General Manager Ben DeCosta pointed out, it could be several decades and billions of dollars down the road.
"I'll leave that to the people who do the site selection studies and our political leaders to determine what is best," DeCosta said.
U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), who has been involved in aviation issues for much of his 40 years in politics, said he has seen all of this before. There was intense discussion nearly three decades back about building a second Atlanta airport, but officials opted instead to expand Hartsfield-Jackson. "It's way too early to talk about building a second airport and to be talking about where it should be built," Isakson said. "The facts [of the study] should dictate that."
During the 1970s, the airport banked 20,000 acres in Paulding and Dawson counties for possible future use. But most officials think those parcels would provide unlikely sites for a new airport, and that the land would likely be used in a trade for a new site.
"We do have those assets available to us, but I don't see them as likely for a second airport," said Clair Muller, an Atlanta City Council member who chairs the council's Transportation Committee. Muller's committee oversees the airport, which is run by the city.
Muller said she is undecided about a preferred location for a new airport, but thinks any new facility must be linked to plans for future ground transportation, such as commuter rail.
The councilwoman acknowledged that there will likely be strong arguments to place any new airport in the heavily populated northern section of the metro area.
Officials say Atlanta needs it, but skeptics wonder if there's enough money or space to build such a thing.
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