Runway projects cleared for takeoff
Senator Jack Reed delivered the news Tuesday that will transform designs for an extended Green Airport into reality and bring to an end a more than a decadelong debate over the airport’s future.
Reed said he talked with acting FAA administrator Michael Huerta on Monday who assured him the Rhode Island Airport Corporation (RIAC) is in line to receive $110 million in federal grants.
The money will go toward three projects – the runway extension, improved protection zones at the shorter runway and noise abatement for homes affected by the airport.
Financing of the runway projects clears the way for the acquisition of properties and the commencement of construction.
Work will start next June on the runway protection zones for Runway 16-34, with completion slated for December 2015. Since there is not space for 1,000-foot safety zones at the ends of the runway, the project includes the use of concrete tiles that are designed to collapse under the weight of an aircraft and stop it. Demolition of Hangar 1, which is part of the safety improvements, is scheduled to start next June and be completed by December of 2013. The cost of that project is estimated at $40.2 million, of which 75 percent will be paid with federal funds.
Construction of the extension to Runway 5-23, requiring acquisition of 16 properties to relocate a section of Main Avenue, will start in June of 2015 and take two years to complete.
Unlike the runway safety improvements that RIAC must have in place by 2015 to meet FAA standards, the extension is not a requirement. This left in question at what level the $83 million project would be funded, if at all.
RIAC requested the maximum 75 percent funding, hopeful of getting at least 50 percent. As it turned out, the FAA approved about 61 percent funding.
“It’s a go,” said RIAC acting CEO Peter Frazier.
“Truly, this is a champagne day for Rhode Island,” he added.
The final piece of the funding package will finance 80 percent of the $30 million noise abatement program.
In keeping with an agreement RIAC and the City Council reached, lifting the threat of a legal challenge of the longer runway and guaranteeing the relocation of the Winslow Park playing fields, among other things, Frazier said letters defining the timing for acquisition of Main Avenue properties, which is not voluntary, would be going to owners and the city by the end of this week. Also, 65 property owners within the runway protection zone will receive notices as to when they can expect to be acquired by early next week.
In addition, Frazier said yesterday that the owners of 444 homes eligible for sound insulation would receive notices once the program has been designed. Homes are to be insulated incrementally over the next five years.
Finally, once the extended runway is operational, RIAC projects another 81 homes will become eligible for the voluntary acquisition program that would be rolled out between 2017 and 2027.
According to Tuesday’s announcement, federal funding will occur over the next five years under what Frazier termed as a “pay-go system.” This is a departure from earlier plans for a letter of intent that RIAC would use to borrow funds until it is reimbursed. Under the pay-go system, federal grants will be used directly to pay construction invoices.
RIAC’s share of the cost will come from bonds it issues and pays off with airport-generated revenues and passenger facility charge revenues that is a part of airline ticket costs.
“This is a day we have been working for, for many, many years,” Reed said.
He noted those efforts have happened at many levels, from the city and state up to the federal government.
Reed called the projects essential to keep Green competitive and building the infrastructure for the state’s future. He cited federal grants flowing into the state in recent years that also strengthen the state’s infrastructure and enhance its ability to attract businesses and jobs, including $55 million for freight rail, $47 million to dredge the Providence River channel, $32 million to extend commuter rail service to Wickford Junction and $32 million for Quonset Port, including the acquisition of a crane for cargo containers.
Reed said, with completion of the projects, Green will be “one of the premier airports in the country and the world.”
Governor Lincoln Chafee hailed the federal funds, not only for the airport but also other projects listed by Reed, as good news for the short and longer term.
“Good things are happening with the delegation,” he said of the congressional leaders. He identified education and infrastructure as crucial for the state’s future.
“The smartest thing you can do is invest in education and infrastructure,” he said.
Mayor Scott Avedisian observed that runway proposals have been discussed for the past 15 years, involving countless hours and resources. Despite differences, he noted, the parties were capable of eventually working together and coming to an agreement. Such cooperation bodes well for Rhode Island, he said.
“It’s all part of a bigger vision for Rhode Island.”