Airport accord hinges on FAA; plan dependent on funds
It’s not done yet, but the outcome has been agreed upon.
There are many steps to be taken before Green Airport has a longer runway; softball and soccer players are no longer in the shadows of landing jets and the Post and Airport Roads intersection is relocated to the north to accommodate an extended safety area on the airport’s shorter runway.
Two of those actions – Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approval of the memorandum of understanding (MOU) reached by the City Council and the Rhode Island Airport Corporation (RIAC) and withdrawal of the council’s suit against the FAA – could happen in the next two weeks. Without either, the $165 million in runway projects won’t leave the ground.
There’s a third critical piece to the plan. That’s funding. And, in the end, it could determine the outcome of a longer runway designed to give Green Airport the infrastructure so airlines can offer non-stop coast-to-coast flights and improve existing operation efficiency.
Thursday, March 1 was the “do or wait” date for RIAC to apply for $64 million of the $88 million runway extension. Had RIAC missed the deadline, it would have had to wait until next year. RIAC is hopeful of receiving 75 percent funding of the project.
The March 1 date set the pace for the council to reach an accord and motivated RIAC to do whatever it could to see that it happened. Had the council pursued litigation, it would have delayed and, quite possibly, deep-sixed the longer runway.
As it turned out, the sprint to March 1 was hectic.
The governor joined by other state elected officials and Mayor Scott Avedisian all urged for a memorandum of understanding. The Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce and the state’s trade unions further applied the pressure emphasizing the possible loss of 1,000 jobs and the ill effects denial of the project would have on the state’s economic future.
With the stage set, the parties sequestered for three straight days of talks arriving at a “conceptual” agreement the night of Friday, Feb. 24. It was then up to the attorneys of both sides to put it all in writing. On Monday, Feb. 27, the council litigation subcommittee chaired by Camille Vella-Wilkinson outlined the tentative agreement to the full council behind closed doors. With the deadline only two days away, the document outlining the terms of the agreement was finalized Wednesday barely an hour before the full council was scheduled to review and vote on it. The next morning – March 1 – the RIAC board unanimously approved the memorandum of agreement at a meeting where board chair Dr. Kathleen Hittner called on parties to put the negatives of the years of debate over airport growth behind them and focus on the positives an improved airport can mean to the state.
Hittner painted a bright picture going forward.
“We have jobs we can create … we have revenues … we have relationships we have built that are going to do us good in the future,” she said.
A settlement won’t come without a price or FAA approval.
RIAC CEO Kevin Dillon said the FAA needs “to review and bless” the agreement to ensure there “is no diversion of funds” that would violate their regulations. Without that approval, projects outlined by the agreement, such as relocation of the ball fields at $4 million, would not be eligible for matching FAA grants. Moreover, should the FAA determine any aspect of the agreement is not an appropriate expenditure of airport funds, even if RIAC was not looking for matching money, that would have to be dropped for the agreement.
On Friday, an FAA spokesman refused to comment on the agreement or the process the agency would apply to reviewing it.
Dillon estimated the MOU would cost RIAC $16 million.
How those funds are spent, especially the $4 million estimated to relocate the Winslow Park playing fields, are likely to command the spotlight. The city has until this September 30 to either finalize plans to locate the fields at the CCRI Knight Campus, or an unnamed alternative site, or RIAC will move ahead to locate them on airport property in the Lakeshore Drive neighborhood.
The proposal to put the fields at the college has a lot of appeal, as it would move them away from the airport; give the college added fields; and have the potential of creating a world class facility and a draw for regional tournaments.
“We’re excited,” CCRI President Ray Di Pasquale said yesterday.
But there are a lot of unknowns.
Di Pasquale said he and Vella-Wilkinson talked for about 45 minutes three weeks ago and he doesn’t know how big of a project is envisioned or where it would be situated on the site.
“Originally we’d talked about two fields,” he said. He said there was no mention of the soccer fields, either.
“We need the details. No one has brought us the scope of the project,” Di Pasquale said.
He pointed out that a preliminary study involving test borings done by RIAC some years ago found the area selected had ledge and was not an appropriate site. That doesn’t mean there aren’t good sites.
However, Di Pasquale said the college doesn’t have the money for an engineering study. “We don’t have a penny to put into the project.”
Nonetheless, he sees the opportunity for all the parties to benefit. He called for the “teams” to come together and explore the possibilities.