Sen. Rick Santorum (R., Pa.) yesterday joined U.S. House members from the region in opposing Philadelphia International Airport's plan to add 1,000 feet to a runway so it can accommodate larger jets to help reduce flight delays.
In a letter to Marion C. Blakey, administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, Santorum said the potential problems created by extending the north-south runway outweighed the help that it may give in solving a chronic-delay problem.
The airport, the busiest in the Northeast in terms of takeoffs and landings, finished 27th in on-time arrivals and 30th in on-time departures in 2004 among the 31 largest U.S. airports, the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics said.
The airport devised the plan to add 1,000 feet of pavement to the 5,500-foot runway, now used mostly by turboprop planes and 30- to 50-seat regional jets, so that planes the size of 130-passenger 737s could use it more often. Most of those planes now use the airport's main 9,500-foot east-west runways.
Santorum wrote that he was concerned about increased air traffic over densely populated areas north of the airport. Also worrisome was the potential for low-flying aircraft to delay ship traffic on the Delaware River, he said.
The FAA, which would pay for most of the $36 million project, "will give the letter careful consideration," spokesman Greg Martin said.
Judy Rice, spokeswoman for the Delaware County-based Coalition Against the Extension of Runway 17-35, said the opponents were grateful for Santorum's support but wished it had come sooner so that it could have been used to generate more attention to the project.
Rep. Robert E. Andrews (D., N.J.), whose district includes towns across the Delaware River from the airport, wrote Blakey, the FAA administrator, on Nov. 30 opposing the project primarily because of its cost. The FAA has said the longer runway would cut delays by an average of 80 seconds per flight. In an interview yesterday, Andrews said such a minimal improvement means the effort "doesn't make any sense from a taxpayers' point of view."
Andrews said that he would seek to remove funding for the extension from the FAA's next budget, but that it is "very rare" for Congress to stop such a project this far along in the process.
The public-comment period on the project ends Monday. The FAA will take at least 30 days after that to make a final decision about whether to fund the runway extension.
Rep. Curt Weldon (R., Pa.), who represents much of Delaware County, also opposes the project, primarily because it would increase noise and harm the quality of life in communities near the airport, a spokeswoman said.
Sen. Arlen Specter (R., Pa.) said in an interview that he hasn't made up his mind about the project and wants to talk to Santorum about it. "I don't want to oppose the residents, but I want to give due regard to the broader economic implications" of not reducing delays, he said.
Rep. Robert A. Brady (D., Pa.), whose district includes the airport, hasn't taken a position because he believes the environmental effect of the plan needs more study, a spokesman said.
The FAA, in a final environmental impact statement on the project released March 3, determined that it would not significantly increase noise near the airport and would reduce air pollution because planes would spend less time waiting to take off.
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Citing safety and economic concerns, Blakey says moving the north runways farther apart should be a top priority