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.
"If that's where the population increases are, that would probably make more sense," she said.
But that population growth could in itself cause huge problems in finding a site for a new airport. Residents are not likely to relish the thought of jets roaring over their houses, even if they like the thought of a nearby airport.
Officials would also have to find 5,000 to 10,000 acres of relatively flat land to the north, which would be no easy task.
"Twenty-five years ago that wasn't an easy thing to get," Isakson said. "And it's a whole lot harder now."
State Rep. Earl Ehrhart (R-Powder Springs) said he would like to be part of any study group that Mayor Shirley Franklin appoints to study Hartsfield-Jackson capacity and the possible need for a second airport. Franklin was out of town Tuesday and could not be reached for comment.
Ehrhart, a private pilot who chairs the state House of Representatives Rules Committee, said land for a new airport would be cheaper on the south side. And opposition could be weaker since the area has fewer residents.
"But can you get the traveling public to travel past Hartsfield-Jackson to go to another airport?" he said. "The argument for it on the north side is the market. That's where your passenger market is."
Ehrhart, however, said there would be massive opposition from many residents in the north metro area if an airport were proposed too close to their homes. And he said large parcels of land suitable for an airport would be difficult to find.
"Where do you get that?" he asked. "It's not available in Cobb County."
TOP METRO AREAS AND MAJOR AIRPORTS
Number of passengers in 2005
Los Angeles..........61 million
Long Beach............3 million
Reagan National......18 million
San Francisco........33 million
San Jose.............11 million
Atlantic City, N.J......980,000
Dallas/Fort Worth....59 million
Love Field............6 million
Source: Airports Council International
Research by JONI ZECCOLA / Staff
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