The council will put on a full court press to negotiate an agreement with the Rhode Island Airport Corporation (RIAC) this week that could end litigation over airport improvements and open the way to construction of a runway extension.
Now that the committee steering the council’s challenge, of the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) approval of the longer runway and other projects, has presented RIAC with a list of demands, which was done last Wednesday, the parties are ready to negotiate. Ward 3 Councilwoman Camille Vella-Wilkinson, who chairs the committee, has scheduled meetings for tomorrow, Thursday and Friday.
“Our hope is that our effort pays off. It won’t be for a lack of trying,” committee member Steve Merolla (D-Ward 9) said Friday. Asked what he expected the city to get from the talks, Merolla responded, “If I knew that, I’d be down at the Stop & Shop in Newport getting a lottery ticket.”
While the parties have agreed to not talk about specifics, RIAC CEO Kevin Dillon doesn’t sound like he’s ready to gamble.
He said Friday there’s “a strong desire for a real earnest effort.” Referring to nearly two months of committee meetings – two of which included RIAC – he added, “Now we know what we’re talking about.”
But Dillon is looking for more than talk and so, too, are the governor, General Treasurer Gina Raimondo, the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce and the trades unions that are pressuring to settle any legal challenge so projects can be started and jobs are created.
In order for RIAC to meet a March 1 deadline for submission of federal funding, Dillon speculated the full council would need to consider and approve any agreement by early next week. Alternatively, RIAC could file for funding and then amend its application when an agreement is finalized, but Dillon would rather get it right from the start.
“Thankfully, it’s leap year,” he said of the extra day.
Dillon cautioned he’s not prepared to strike an agreement at any cost, either.
“I’m not inclined to take the project cost and double it,” he said.
Costs may also be a consideration for the council that is paying California aviation attorney Steve Taber to represent them. Taber is being paid about $200 an hour and Merolla said Taber’s initial invoice of $2,500 seemed “fair and incredibly reasonable” given the volume of material in the case. The petition for a review of the FAA decision was filed in the U.S. Appellate Court in Washington, D.C.
According to Peter Frazier, general counsel for RIAC, the court issued a briefing schedule last week calling on the council to submit a brief by April 2. That is to be followed by the FAA brief on May 2 and RIAC brief on May 17.
Dillon said RIAC intervened in the suit “to keep track” of developments and be supportive of FAA.
But clearly, if the council is to stay in the litigation game, Taber will need to put in more time and the clock will be ticking. A total of $124,000 is allocated in the budget for litigation.
A three-judge panel would consider the council’s claim that the FAA acted in an arbitrary and capacious manner in approving the projects.
“We’re cautiously optimistic that a decision could be rendered by the end of the calendar year,” should litigation be pursued by the council, Frazier said.
Merolla countered charges that the council has been dragging its feet, saying, “We just recently got all the documents and this is the first opportunity to respond and have meaningful negotiations.”
He said Taber has consumed the bulk of the time just going through all the information. As Merolla sees it, “we’re more interested in the mitigation measures than the project itself.” He said he doesn’t want to see people “stuck in their houses for 14 years” not knowing when they might be bought out. “There are so many issues, including moving the ball fields,” he added.
He appears to have consensus with City Council President Bruce Place. At last Wednesday’s committee meeting, where Raimondo urged the panel to consider the short- and long-term impacts of its actions, Place responded that he was in full agreement with Raimondo, although he has a responsibility to also represent the interests of Warwick residents.
It would appear that, even if RIAC were to consider a lesser project, such as reducing the proposed extension from 8,700 feet to 8,300 feet, it would mean a fresh environmental impact statement taking several years. Mayor Scott Avedisian pushed for an 8,300-foot runway, arguing it would be far less disruptive to the community and wouldn’t dramatically affect Green’s capability to offer airlines non-stop coast-to-coast service. The 8,300-foot proposal has come up again in recent public sessions, preceding the litigation committee’s closed meetings, although, at this point, that does not seem like a possible compromise.