On Monday night, a delegation of business and union leaders is expected to ask the City Council to reconsider their action to appeal a ruling enabling the Rhode Island Airport Corporation (RIAC) to move ahead with projects to extend one runway and add safety improvements to another.
The action is being coordinated by the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce and the Rhode Island Construction and Building Trades Council and comes as council members have indicated their willingness to talk with RIAC and possibly reach an agreement before pursuing the petition filed in federal court in Washington, D.C.
“We need to move forward on the modernization and safety improvements at Green Airport,” Chamber President and CEO Laurie White said yesterday. She added that the council’s petition for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to review its record of decision could delay the projects by as much as 15 months.
“We strongly believe this is not in the best interests of the citizens,” she said.
White sees the delegation’s mission as a follow-up to the letter that was hand delivered to council members Thanksgiving weekend, asking that they reconsider their action. She hopes the council will do that Monday. She said she would speak on behalf of the business leaders and that the building trades and unions would provide a spokesperson for their point of view. She said the delegation would number about a dozen people.
Greg Mancini, executive director and general counsel for the trades council that represents contractors and unions, said he hopes to speak as an advocate for economic development. He said he sees the proposal to extend the runway from 7,166 to 8,700 feet and other improvements as a long-term benefit for the state.
“I hope RIAC and the council can work out the issues,” he said.
RIAC President and CEO Kevin Dillon said he has seen e-mails relative to Monday’s council meeting. Asked if the agency played a role in orchestrating a turnout he said, “We did not have a hand in it.”
Dillon said he has been getting calls ever since it got out that the council challenged the decision but, as for working with groups, he said they’re their own independent organizations: “They certainly don’t work for the airport.”
The delegation was news to City Council President Bruce Place, who questioned whether the group would have the chance to speak, since there is nothing on the docket relative to the airport.
“I don’t know where they would fit in,” he said in a telephone call. “They’re not on the agenda.”
However, it appears that the delegation and members of the public would be able to speak at the second meeting of the month, under a resolution approved by the council last month, during Place’s absence.
The measure was signed by the mayor on Nov. 29 and provides for a 15-minute public comment session at the conclusion of the meeting. However, the provision does not apply to the first meeting of the month.
Another option is for a council member to call for a reconsideration of the vote. In order for that to be docketed, it would have to happen prior to Friday in order to be posted on the Secretary of State website and there would need to be five affirmative votes.
Place said he is not aware that any council member would make such a request.
Place reiterated his willingness “to sit down and talk with anybody at any time” to resolve issues with the airport projects. He said he would do everything in his power to ensure that the airport addresses air and water quality concerns.
Place suggested having Steven Taber, the California aviation attorney the council has retained to appeal the decision, attend a special executive session of the council “to explain where we are.”
“I don’t think anyone in the council is anti-economic development,” he said in response to arguments that an appeal would chill redevelopment in the intermodal district and stymie airport related business growth.
Earlier this week, Ward 7 Councilman Charles Donovan Jr., who said he had talked with Taber, urged the council to enter into discussions with RIAC in the next two months. He said he saw no purpose to saying no just to say no. Also favoring opening talks with RIAC are Councilwoman Camille Vella-Wilkinson, who introduced the resolution, and Ward 8 Councilman Steve Merolla, who has been especially vocal about an appeal. Merolla wants to see a timetable for acquisitions of properties and improvements such as a de-icing fluid collection system RIAC says it must have operational by 2015 as mandated by environmental regulations. The system is projected to cost $25 million and Merolla has questioned how RIAC would fund it.
Vella-Wilkinson said an “enforceable” agreement with RIAC could be a “win-win” for the city and RIAC. On Tuesday, Ward 4 Councilman Joseph Solomon, who has also been a critic of the airport project, saying the health and safety of residents should take a priority, said he too favors an agreement over a court battle.
Mayor Scott Avedisian did not sign the resolution to appeal. The administration maintains there are few grounds on which to appeal and that the effort would simply delay the inevitable outcome and be a waste of taxpayers’ money. Further, the administration points out, the council rejected a memorandum of agreement worked out more than a year ago that addressed issues now being raised by council members. Although Dillon welcomed counter proposals from the council, none were made.
Avedisian was not in town yesterday, but his chief of staff Mark Carruolo thought council efforts to talk with RIAC make sense.
“I think it’s a good idea,” he said. “We spoke with at least eight law firms and they said the best action is to reach an agreement that would be recognized by FAA.”
In their letter, the chamber and the trades council wrote:
“There is no denying that Rhode Island is at a crossroads. The current economic climate makes it even more important that we come together as a community to support this process and work with the Rhode Island Airport Corporation and the FAA to push for completion of this important economic development project.”
It goes on to say, “This process has gone on for far too long. Now is the time to move forward, and to prepare for an economic landscape that looks very different from today. Green Airport is an indispensable public facility that connects Rhode Island to a universe of economic opportunity and we need to ensure the facility’s competitiveness.”
Since the council action, City Planner William DePasquale said he has received about a dozen calls from residents and businesses questioning how it would impact them. He described the tenor of the calls as “bewilderment.” He also said he has had calls from residents supporting the action and that “health and safety trumps the cost [of bringing legal action].”