November 24, 2014
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Lookout
Quonset should have a role in airport discussion
John Hazen White Jr.

The T.F. Green airport expansion saga continues. And saga is the right word for it, as the effort to extend the main runway at the airport has again met with resistance from the political establishment in Warwick. The latest pushback has been made by the Warwick City Council, which has moved, with Mayor Scott Avedisian’s tacit approval, to appeal the FAA decision to allow a runway extension plus a number of airport projects. Despite a hard-pressed budget situation in Warwick, the City Council has found $65,000 for litigation, and has hired a California law firm with experience in “environmental, aviation and airport clients.” The net result of the petition by the city: in all likelihood a one- to three-year potential delay in moving forward on the runway extension.

(Note: As of this writing, the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce and other business interests have appealed to the City Council to withdraw its petition and the council may open up further discussions with the Rhode Island Airport Corporation).

Back in 2009 I wrote a column on the airport runway extension issue in which I posed the question as to whether a runway extension would ever happen at T.F. Green because of the local opposition. In that column I referenced two “Lookout TV” shows that I did back in 2005 on the runway issue and said “…if I was still doing my show today we could sit down and pretty much pick up where we left off back then.”

Fast forward to 2011 and that would still be true, except for the opening of the Intermodal train station and the FAA decision to allow the extension. These have been significant developments, true, but now comes the halt to the project once again. Remember, the runway would allow for direct cross-country flights and even transatlantic flights from places like the Azores or Britain. Green needs this runway if it is to remain competitive with Manchester, N.H. and even Logan.

Warwick City Council member Steve Merolla has argued in a recent op-ed that there are significant and not just NIMBY-type arguments being put forth by the city, arguments that have to do with environmental concerns with airport runoff and the plight of to-be-affected homeowners and businesses. But most of those concerns are problems already and are not going to go away, with or without the runway extension. And the larger issue beyond the local concerns has to do with the state’s interest; after all, an airport capable of handling larger aircraft for longer flights brings a direct economic benefit to the state as a whole, which we are forfeiting by these delays.

If I lived or worked in the airport’s shadow, I might agree with the council’s concerns, so we shouldn’t dismiss them just because most of us don’t have jets looming overhead with their attendant noise, pollution and even occasional spillage. Warwick is host to the airport and may be forever. It has learned to live with the airport in its midst and it benefits from that presence and the activities that take place there.

The real problem here, caused by a lack of vision and strategic transportation planning on the part of the state and the Rhode Island Airport Corporation, which runs the airport, is trying to shoehorn a growing airport into too small a space. As I’ve argued before – and Warwick’s latest move forces me to state it once again – the state should have planned and executed an alternative to T.F. Green years ago. And that alternative is the former Navy airfield at Quonset Point, which remains today underutilized and underdeveloped.

But much like the port at Quonset Point, the airfield has not been put to work to maximize its inherent advantages. Yes, there would be issues relating to bringing the airfield up to handle larger aircraft use, and airport infrastructure would have to be developed, but these are not insurmountable hurdles, and the one thing that man cannot control at Quonset Point that has been offered up as one more reason the Quonset Point airfield can’t be put to a new use; the wind directions – seems to be a pretty thin excuse. The Navy used it for decades and the R.I. Air National Guard uses it today, with heavy planes like C-17s and C-141s occasionally touching down on its tarmac.

It would be far preferable to let T.F. Green remain at its present size and develop Quonset as a second airport to handle cargo and longer flights. Road, rail and even sea access are excellent and in place already. Linking to Green for a connecting flight and going into Providence via train, shuttle or car would be quick and easy. Imagine flying to and from the West Coast or direct to Europe and back via our own international airport? Think about the economic benefits of such services.

But for now, and who knows for how many years longer, the fight at T.F. Green will go on while the airfield at Quonset sits mostly idle. That is a significant aviation-related public policy failure on the state’s part.


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