Pressured for airport deal
Reed, Avedisian join chorus for council agreement
As if the council hasn’t already heard the message from the governor, general treasurer, Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce and union leaders, Senator Jack Reed and Mayor Scott Avedisian joined Tuesday in the chorus calling on the council to reach an agreement enabling the Rhode Island Airport Corporation (RIAC) to proceed with airport improvements that include a longer runway.
The press conference at the Mary Brennan Room of the Sundlun Terminal was billed as a briefing on recent passage of the $63.4 billion Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) bill that could provide an estimated $124 million for the Green Airport projects.
But the current status of talks between RIAC and the council, which resumed yesterday and are scheduled to continue today and tomorrow, took the spotlight.
“I’m hearing by the end of the week they’ll have a definite answer,” Avedisian said of negotiations. Last Wednesday the council committee presented RIAC CEO Kevin Dillon with a list of demands in exchange for dropping its appeal of the FAA’s approval of the projects. The appeal for a review of the “record of decision” was filed in Washington, D.C., and if pursued could delay the airport projects by a year if not longer.
State elected officials, the chamber and unions have been pressuring the council to drop its appeal both for the short- and long-term benefit of new jobs and the future of the state’s economy.
With Tuesday’s announcement, yet another issue raised by those calling for deliberative action – funding of the project – appeared to be addressed.
Dillon said he would meet the March 1 deadline for federal funding of the projects whether or not an agreement is reached with the council. He said he would prefer an agreement since the funding request could also include projects such as the relocation of the playing fields at Winslow Park.
There are no guarantees that funding will be available for the projects, but since the FAA has ranked safety overruns of Runway 16-34 as a priority, Dillon is reasonably confident RIAC will receive 75 percent funding of the $77 million project. The project will entail acquiring 10 businesses and the relocation of the Post and Airport Road intersection to the north.
Dillon is less certain of FAA funding of the runway extension estimated to cost $88 million. He would like 75 percent funding but is hopeful of “a minimum of 50 percent.”
Dillon said without the legislation the airport projects could not move ahead.
Approval of the FAA bill comes four years after the original law expired. President Obama signed it into law last week.
Reed, Gov. Chafee and Avedisian addressed the media. In the audience were council members Joseph Solomon (D-Ward 4) and Charles Donovan Jr. (D-Ward 7), who had voted to appeal the FAA decision.
Reed said extending the runway would attract new business and high-quality jobs to Rhode Island.
“We have a chance to modernize the airport to accommodate bigger planes and transatlantic flights, connecting Rhode Island to the world. Now that the FAA bill has been signed into law, we must seize this opportunity to get this project off the ground,” he said in a statement.
Reed said gaining passage of the bill “was not an easy process,” nor is the bill perfect. Yet, he added, it is a pathway to secure funding and he stressed the need for Green to make the safety improvements and extend the runway so the airport has the infrastructure for future growth.
Chafee said his visits to other parts of the country, as well as technological developments resulting in quieter aircraft engines, has changed his thinking about the airport. He said he now views the airport as an “economic engine” for the state.
In comments prior to the press conference, Dillon said funding for the legislation “comes from user fees,” or a 7.5-percent ticket charge that flows into the Aviation Trust Fund.
“It is not coming from the general fund or the income tax,” he said.
The funding is separate from the $4.50 passenger facility charge (PFC) that enplaning passengers pay and is earmarked specifically for the originating airport, Dillon said. The PFCs and bonds are traditionally used to make up the matching share of a project cost.
“We never use O&M [operations and maintenance] reserves,” Dillon said.