Providence Journal Online
Scott Avedisian: Setting Record Straight on Airport Expansion
August 31, 2009
SCOTT AVEDISIAN, City of Warwick Mayor

THROUGHOUT MY long tenure as Warwick’s mayor, the city has been subjected to numerous proposals by the Rhode Island Airport Corporation and the Federal Aviation Administration to expand T.F. Green Airport’s main runway.

My administration has always recognized that the airport is an important component of Rhode Island’s economy. In fact, in a 2008 letter to the FAA, the city suggested that an extension of the main runway to 8,300 feet would satisfy RIAC’s stated purpose and need (to provide non-stop West Coast service), save critical taxpayer dollars, benefit the state and local economy, and dramatically reduce the adverse effect on Warwick.

The city’s overwhelming concerns with the multiple runway proposals over the past decade are based mainly on environmental and quality of life impacts resulting from airport expansion. Warwick understands these challenges first hand and continues to work for state and federal recognition that expanding the infrastructure without proper mitigation will have a harmful effect on the city.

Let me be clear: The city is not opposed to runway improvements. Warwick opposes a project that does not promote sensible, environmentally responsible infrastructure improvements and does not fairly balance the airport’s needs with the health and safety of those who live within its shadow. It is my responsibility to protect Warwick’s residents and to ensure the long-term environmental and fiscal well-being of the city.

RIAC’s most recent proposal to expand the main runway to 8,700 feet, while not the city’s preferred option, has been the most reasonable to date. However, contrary to their assertions, RIAC and the FAA continue to marginalize Warwick’s very real, reasonable and legitimate concerns. To compound this issue, RIAC has publically misrepresented that it is close to an agreement with the city regarding issues related to the proposal.

The following are among the issues that RIAC and the FAA have failed to address:

Home Acquisitions: RIAC proclaims that only 11 properties will need to be acquired, when, in reality, this figure represents only the mandatory condemnation necessary for the Main Avenue roadway relocation. In fact, more than 220 homes will be targeted for takings under FAA standards. The actual loss of homes is far greater than RIAC claims.

This is compounded by the fact that RIAC is still acquiring homes under previous programs that began some six years ago, leaving residents unwilling and unable to plan for ordinary home expenses and repairs, and exposed to the continuous, deleterious effects of airport activities. Also troubling is that a disproportionate number of the homes affected (91 percent) by runway expansion are considered “affordable” and RIAC has no plan to replace this finite housing stock.

The city has requested that RIAC and the FAA fund an independent housing study and agree to an acquisition timetable linked to construction projects with tangible funding sources. They have refused. Instead, they propose “business as usual” — leaving residents on their own to cope with increased noise, pollution and a degraded quality of life indefinitely — while they expend their resources on runway expansion.

Land Use/Air Quality: The expansion would extend the airport’s fence line and operations to within a stone’s throw of John Wickes and St. Rose of Lima Elementary schools. This would result in increased noise- and air- pollution exposure for the schoolchildren. Decreased enrollment at John Wickes is also a byproduct because a substantial portion of that school district will be eliminated by RIAC/FAA.

The city has asked RIAC to consider acquiring John Wickes School, or, alternatively, to conduct air-quality monitoring at the schools to ensure the students’ health and safety. RIAC has offered to install one new air-quality-monitoring station and perform monitoring until 2015. This response is incomprehensible in that — according to RIAC’s own environmental impact report — full build will not be complete until 2020 — five years after RIAC would cease air-quality monitoring. RIAC has said, in effect, that it will monitor the schools temporarily but will stop before the runway is operational. The reason expressed by RIAC officials? It’s too expensive.

Winslow Recreational Fields: This is the home of the Apponaug Girls’ Softball and the Warwick Firefighters’ Soccer associations. Elimination of these fields would displace these organizations, affecting several hundred families, and severely impacting these invaluable community assets. This issue must be resolved directly, as a cloud remains over the future of these programs, potentially decreasing membership and leading to the programs’ eventual failure.

The city has asked that RIAC find a suitable new location for these leagues. RIAC has not yet offered a tangible proposal.

Environmental Impacts: Recognizing that residents and environmental advocates have serious concerns about the impacts of airport operations on general health as well as air, noise and water quality, we asked RIAC to create an educational program so that residents are aware of the negative environmental conditions resulting from expansion. To date RIAC has not acknowledged the city’s request.

The city has also requested that RIAC maintain and potentially expand the existing air quality monitoring program and to improve the water quality for Buckeye Brook by eliminating pollutant discharge into the brook and its watershed. RIAC has refused.

PILOT Assistance: Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) is a state reimbursement program available to local communities to make up for lost tax revenue resulting from state facilities and institutions that are tax-exempt. Some other communities receive funds through agreements with individual state agencies.

The city loses millions of dollars annually because of the airport’s tax-exempt status. It has been estimated that the city lost $1 million in annual tax revenue to RIAC expansion in 2008 alone and, according to RIAC calculations the city would lose an additional $1 million annually to the runway extension. In the aggregate, it has been estimated that the city loses between $22 and $33 million in tax revenue annually because of the airport.

Unlike other communities that receive PILOT or other funds, Warwick is not compensated for revenue lost to the airport.

Because the tax burden of airport expansion has been shifted to Warwick’s residents, the city has requested that RIAC work with Governor Carcieri and the General Assembly to secure an agreement to provide reasonable compensation to alleviate some of this burden. RIAC’s response: If the airport were not in Warwick then the city would not have the benefit of taxes from the hotels and car rental agencies and other airport-associated businesses.

The majority of these issues were presented to RIAC as far back as 2005. As mayor, I have a moral obligation and fiduciary responsibility to protect the city’s interests. I believe the residents of Rhode Island’s other 38 communities would demand nothing less from their elected officials. I still believe that reasonable people can work together to find solutions for the common good of Warwick and the State of Rhode Island. What I will not do, however, is forfeit the fundamental rights of Warwick’s citizens in exchange for empty promises.

Scott Avedisian is mayor of Warwick.