Longer Runway Sought at Palm Beach

Palm Beach International Airport could nearly double its takeoffs and landings if federal aviation officials sign off on a plan to extend the airport's shortest runway so that it can accommodate larger jets.

The Federal Aviation Administration has begun a three-year, $1 million environmental study to consider lengthening the airport's general aviation runway from 3,210 to 8,000 feet.

The extension would boost the airport's capacity by creating two parallel runways -- one for takeoffs and one for landings. Both would be long enough to be used by commercial aircraft.

"It almost gives us double the airfield capacity," Airport Director Bruce Pelly said.

Airports in Miami and Orlando also have designated runways for takeoff and landings, PBIA spokeswoman Lisa De La Rionda said. It's the most efficient way to move airplanes, because traffic controllers don't have to worry about coordinating arrivals and departures.

"Parallel runways are how airports are being developed now," said FAA spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen. "That is the most efficient and effective way."

But people who live east of the airport and at least one county commissioner questioned the plan. They say a longer runway will bring more noise to neighborhoods already burdened by loud planes.

"That second runway is going to be a major, major fundamental problem," said Commissioner Jeff Koons, whose district includes the neighborhoods east of Interstate 95 that will be most affected by the extension.

He wants airport officials to focus on redeveloping land PBIA already owns before pursuing the extension.

"I want the airport to prioritize that," Koons said. "That doesn't take a lot of dollars."

Airport officials say the extension is needed to prevent delays, which by 2018 could be as long as 20 minutes, according to a consultant's report. With the longer runway, those delays would be reduced to about 2 1/2 minutes.

Last year, there were 193,000 flights at PBIA. That number is expected to grow to 246,000 by 2020.

If the FAA signs off on the extension, it would be at least five years before the runway is lengthened, airport officials have said. Even then, the county must still secure federal and state grants to pay for the $69 million project.

"It's the FAA's process and study," De La Rionda said. "This is where they are beginning."

The majority of the money for the project would come from the FAA or the state. The rest would be raised through passenger facility charges, a fee added to all airline tickets, De La Rionda said.

No county tax money would be used to pay for the project, De La Rionda said.

Under the plan, the passenger fee would be increased from $3 to $4.50. County commissioners would be asked to approve the increase, De La Rionda said.

Part of airport master plan

To make room for the longer runway, several businesses that serve general aviation and charter aircraft would be moved from their offices along Southern Boulevard.

They would be relocated to the former Golfview site near Belvedere and Military Trail. Golfview dissolved its town government in 1998 after the county paid $15.9 million for 61 of its 63 residential properties.

The airport also plans to purchase 14 properties on the northwest corner of Military Trail and Southern Boulevard. The land is needed to create a runway protection or "crash" zone for the longer runway. The county already owns much of the property in the neighborhood, and a majority of the homes have been demolished.

And as part of the project, the airport's third, crosswind, runway would be shortened from 6,932 to 4,000 feet so that it no longer intersects the main runway.

The runway extension has been part of the PBIA's master plan since county commissioners signed off on the document in 2000. The airport's aviation advisory board voted last month to keep it in an updated version of the plan.

Jose Rodriguez, president of the Vedado Neighborhood Association, which is in the airport's flight path, said noisy airplanes already prevent residents in his neighborhood from enjoying their back yards during the airport's peak weekend hours. A longer runway will only make things worse, he said.

"My windows rattle. My doors rattle," said Rodriguez, who has been involved in airport issues for the past six years.

"When a plane is landing, I have to raise the volume of the TV, or when we are having a conversation we have to stop until the plane passes by," he said. "Sunday afternoon, between 2 and 5 p.m. that is what we call rush hour. That's when you know you can't have any company outside."

Rodriguez said the airport has paid to install insulated windows in a handful of homes in his neighborhood because of loud planes. He wants more money set aside to soundproof homes.

"We are going to be sandwiched in between two air strips," Rodriguez said. "And there hasn't been any communication directly to the neighborhoods."

Public hearings planned

De La Rionda said it's too soon to say how the extension will affect nearby neighborhoods. Noise will be one of the environmental concerns evaluated as part of the FAA's study, she said.

The study also will look at air quality, wetlands and other environmental issues that could be affected by the project, Bergen said.

This month's meeting is the first in a series of public hearings and workshops the FAA will conduct on the plan, Bergen said.

Tuesday was the first day that Susy Diaz, a resident of the Prospect Heights neighborhood, heard of the plans to expand the airport's runway. Diaz said she plans to attend the public meeting.

"I can see where people are concerned," said Diaz, who has had family ties to the neighborhood for all of her 32 years. "We've had plenty of people in our area that have had issues with the noise."

She worried that her neighbors might also be unaware of airport's plans.

"It's vital to the economic development to the area," she said about the expansion. "But it's got to be while (keeping) the residents informed."

Staff writer Hector Florin contributed to this story.

What's next

- The FAA must complete a three-year environmental study of the runway extension.

- If the FAA approves the plan, airport officials will have to find state and federal grants to cover a majority of the runway's $69 million price tag.

- Passenger facility charges, a fee added to all airline tickets, would be increased from $3 to $4.50 to help pay for the extension.

- If approved, airport officials say it would be 'many years' before construction begins.

FAA public meeting

When

5-8 p.m. Feb. 27

Where

Hilton Palm Beach Airport, 150 Australian Ave., west of West Palm Beach

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