With members of the City Council and the Rhode Island Airport Corporation (RIAC) in closed negotiations over airport expansion, the results of a poll commissioned by the construction trade unions released yesterday find most Warwick residents consider the airport a good neighbor and favor its expansion.
“We were hoping people would see that it is something supported by the people of Warwick,” Rhode Island AFL-CIO President George H. Nee said of airport projects that include the extension of safety areas to one runway and the lengthening of the other from 7,166 to 8,700 feet. Although the city administration saw no grounds for an appeal, the City Council voted to challenge the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) decision approving the projects. That action was filed late last year in the Washington Appellate Court.
Last Wednesday the council committee gave RIAC CEO Kevin Dillon a list of demands including such proposals as the relocation of the Winslow Park ball fields on which it would be willing to drop its suit. And yesterday the parties started negotiations with hopes of reaching a resolution as soon as this Friday.
The timing of the poll conducted from Feb. 13 to Feb. 16, just of Warwick residents, is no coincidence.
“Now we have some facts to show the council,” said Michael Sabitoni, president of the RI Building and Construction Trades Council and business manager of Laborers Local 271. And he believes the results will carry some weight.
“When you’re a political animal, you usually look at a poll,” he said.
Of the 304 people who answered the survey, 56 percent supported FAA approval of the extended runway while 42 percent did not. Seventy percent felt the airport is a good neighbor and 25 percent disagreed.
Fleming Associates that conducted the poll also asked residents if they favored the City Council’s action to challenge the FAA decision. Of the respondents, 37 percent favored the appeal while 54 percent did not; 8 percent were not sure and 1 percent refused to respond.
The poll carried some political overtones as well, which council members will surely spot.
To the question, “If your councilman supported the expansion of the airport runway, would you be more or less likely to support him or her for re-election,” 45 percent of the respondents said more likely, 34 percent said less likely, 17 percent said no difference and 4 percent were not sure.
In response to the poll’s first question, other than establishing the age, gender and whether the respondent is a registered voter, 53 percent felt Warwick is headed in the right direction, 29 percent said wrong direction, 10 percent unchanged and 8 percent unsure.
That finding didn’t escape the notice of political pundits, who point out it is a ringing endorsement of Mayor Scott Avedisian. The approval rating far exceeds the 18 percent given Gov. Chafee and the numbers of state elected officials.
Avedisian, who learned of poll results Tuesday, called the approval rating “fantastic and very encouraging for us.”
He said the poll “bears out what everyone thinks.” As for the findings on airport projects, Avedisian thinks it is reflective of the understanding this has been a long process during which airport plans have been scaled back from two 10,000-foot parallel runways to a single 8,700-foot runway. Avedisian had held out for 8,300 feet, but that didn’t happen.
“Everyone realizes we got some good concessions and safeguards,” he said. He was also not surprised with the good neighbor rating.
“Kevin definitely listens to people and he is willing to get out among the people,” he said of Dillon.
Nee said four unions, the State Chapter of the AFL-CIO, the RI Building and Construction Trades Council, Working Rhode Island and Build Rhode Island, teamed up to pay for the poll. He said what they spent is proprietary information.
“We took the initiative to do this,” he said. He added that he is hopeful the poll will become part of the public debate as well as the decision process. “We’ve got to get some positive things going.” He said delaying the projects could mean a lost opportunity for new jobs and possibly our place in line when it comes to federal funding.
Sabitoni said, “I think all along we knew in our gut that people favored this.” He said it is understandable that immediate neighbors to the proposed airport projects would oppose them, but he feels most people realize the importance of the airport to the state’s economy and future.
“We didn’t skew it,” Sabitoni said of poll results. “It is what it is.”
As for whether it will actually change things and help the parties reach an agreement, Sabitoni said, “I’m pessimistically optimistic that the City Council will do the right thing.”
The results of the poll can be viewed on the Beacon website: Warwickonline.com.