Reaching point of no return on airport expansion?
To the Editor:
On Feb. 15, R.I. Treasurer Gina Raimondo urged the Warwick City Council to resolve its issues with T.F. Green Airport’s proposed expansion plan and to “get it done.” (Providence Journal, 2/15/12) In the Treasurer’s Feb. 14, 2012 Op-Ed piece in the Journal, she claims that “Investing in our infrastructure is critical to making Rhode Island an attractive place to do business, and to creating jobs.” There is little doubt that investing in infrastructure is critical to our state’s success, but there are still plenty of bridges and roads in Rhode Island that remain in dire need of investment (RI DOT Bridge Inventory Data Sheet, 3/20/11).
The Treasurer further asserts that “this project will create an estimated 1,300 jobs and generate an estimated $157.8 million in statewide business revenue.” Assuming her figures are accurate, it makes little economic sense to spend $160 million, undoubtedly a conservative figure, on a project that will produce $157.8 million in “business revenue.” A fraction of that $160 million would be better-served improving Rhode Island’s ailing roads and bridges, some of which have been closed or had weight limits imposed on them. As for the treasurer’s focus on short-term building jobs, construction workers are not the only people in Rhode Island who are looking for work. Strong-arming the City Council is no way of rationally contributing to a major decision-making process that will have profound repercussions for thousands of individuals and families beyond those temporary workers who may spend no more than several months on the runway extension (Beacon, 1/31/12).
Finally, the treasurer claims that, “Improvement of our infrastructure through projects such as the T.F. Green runway expansion will be viewed positively by rating agencies, potential investors and businesses already engaged in, or considering doing business in, Rhode Island.” Just as there are reasonable doubts concerning demand for nonstop West Coast flights from T.F. Green (see Martin Kalagian’s 2/14/12 Beacon letter), there is also significant skepticism that RIAC’s continued spending will look good to credit agencies, investors and businesses. In a Jan. 31, 2012 letter to the Beacon editor, Richard Langseth cites Ted Nesi’s WPRI.com blog discussing how Fitch Ratings recently warned RIAC about borrowing $65 million (Ted Nesi, 8/18/11). Nesi’s blog goes on to say that Fitch recently downgraded RIAC’s credit rating from A to A- and lowered its outlook on RIAC’s $260 million debt from stable to negative. Given T.F. Green’s declining passenger numbers since at least 2008 (WPRI, 11/21/11), this information raises important concerns about whether rating agencies, investors and businesses really would positively view the T.F. Green runway expansion.
Aside from financial concerns, there remains the human impact that the drawn-out expansion affair has had on Warwick. According to U.S. Census figures, Warwick’s population dropped by 3.7 percent, or 3,136 people, between 2000 and 2010 (Warwick Beacon, 3/29/11). Former City Planner Mark Carruolo attributed RIAC’s acquisition of 300 homes as one of the three major reasons for the city’s population drop. Take a drive down Post Road just south of Airport Road and notice the numerous empty commercial buildings that once housed tax-paying businesses. Avoid some of the neighborhoods behind the airport, like Strawberry Field Road, if you would prefer not to see empty blocks of land where houses once stood. The decade-long malaise induced by the specter of airport expansion has not only driven residents and businesses away from the second-largest city in Rhode Island, but it has cast a wide shadow over the many thousands who remain because they either cannot afford to leave or cannot bear to sell the homes they proudly call their own.
In the end, we must consider not only the local impact of the T.F. Green expansion, but also the statewide and national ramifications. Even though Treasurer Raimondo and Governor Chafee, working in conjunction with the General Assembly, achieved positive state-level pension reform last November, Rhode Island is still in rough shape. We have a December 2011 unemployment rate of 10.8 percent (Providence Journal, 1/20/12), a $100+ million budget deficit (Providence Journal, 11/22/11), and ongoing systemic issues – all of which require fixing before this state can produce better living conditions for its residents. On the national level, the U.S. government has accumulated an alarming $15.4 trillion in federal debt that would make Alexander Hamilton blush (US Debt Clock, 2/27/12). If a significant portion of the T.F. Green expansion would be funded with federal money, how can the FAA contemplate expenditures on a nonessential runway extension when it should be allocating funds only to critical projects like runway safety improvements and upgrades in the nation’s aging passenger aircraft fleet?
Many outstanding questions and concerns about the T.F. Green expansion remain. If the runway is extended, will more flights actually follow? Will nonstop flights to the West Coast materialize? How about international flights? What percentage of total flights in and out of the airport will West Coast and international flights comprise? Will more people go to Green than Logan just because of the longer runway? Will post-expansion airport revenue compensate for the residential and business property tax income that has been lost over the last dozen years? Can RIAC and the federal government afford the expansion in our current economy? Will funding for the expansion cause a subsequent rise in concession/rental fees to help pay for RIAC’s extra debt? How many more thousands of Warwick residents will have to bear the already egregious noise that pommels their homes on a daily basis? How much more pollution will infiltrate homes, fields, streets and waterways? Will Warwick continue to lose residents in a city that prides itself on its sense of community and family-friendliness?
For the sake of the city, town, and country that we all love, let’s think carefully before we reach the point of no return.