Where those opposed to airport expansion once outnumbered a few holdouts – usually from the Rhode Island Airport Corporation – for a longer runway, scores of people are now turning out in favor of the improvement program.
On Thursday night about 150 people, many of them union laborers carrying hard hats, showed up for the second joint meeting between the City Council’s litigation sub-committee and RIAC representatives. The committee meets behind closed doors, but as a practice opens for public comment before going into executive session.
Committee chair Camille Vella-Wilkinson said yesterday the group would meet again this Thursday at a time to be announced and that it will be preceded by a public session. She said the committee would meet with Steve Taber, the aviation attorney retained by the council, who will fly in from California on Wednesday.
Union leaders and the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce coordinated Thursday’s turnout in support of airport growth. The unions see the council’s action to challenge the Federal Aviation Administration’s decision approving a longer runway and safety improvements as delaying, and maybe killing, the opportunity to create an estimated 1,300 jobs. The chamber is behind the project as a means of enhancing the state’s economy, creating more business for existing businesses and attracting new businesses and development.
Council members consistently have said they agree that the airport is an economic engine, but maintain issues of the health and quality of life for Warwick residents have not been adequately addressed. Committee members Steven Merolla, D-Ward 9 and Vella-Wilkinson, D-Ward 3, repeated that theme Thursday. Merolla went an extra step to declare he favors the project.
“We’re in favor of it, don’t worry about it,” he assured.
It was jobs, and the fear that litigation could delay the projects, that held center stage.
Chamber president and CEO Laurie White urged the committee to expedite its timetable.
“Time is of the essence,” she said, “People are hurting.”
Paul MacDonald, president of the Providence Central federated Council of the AFL-CIO, said that 40 percent of the union’s members have been out of work for a year or longer.
“If we don’t get a shovel in the ground this spring, it will be another year without work. This is not good,” said MacDonald. He went on to call the situation “a disaster,” and reminded the committee, when speaking of disasters, it was union workers who restored the electricity and got the sewer pumps working again after the 2010 flood.
Even if the council had not filed suit in the federal courts and the funding was in place, which is not certain, design of the projects and permitting must be completed, putting the start of construction this fall at best.
Scott Duhamel, Business Representative of the Builders Union, urged the committee to “negotiate in an acceptable fashion,” but to do it quickly so as not to delay the project. Asked after his testimony, he said just resolving controversy over the project would be a plus, even though he conceded jobs may not come as quickly as everyone would like.
“You can help us,” Merolla said. Recalling how other phases of airport improvement projects had taken 12 to 14 years to complete, he said RIAC relies on state funding for construction and called on the unions and the chamber to lobby the General Assembly to ensure they get it.
In actuality, RIAC does not receive any state appropriations and funds to match FAA grants come from revenues generated by airline rental fees and passenger facility charges.
Richard Langseth and Michael Zarum, longtime critics of airport expansion, both questioned how many jobs the added paving for a longer runway and runway safety areas would create. Langseth urged the unions to push for construction of a $25 million system to capture and treat deicing fluid, much of which now ends up in Buckeye Brook. Zarum suggested, if the unions are looking for construction jobs, that they lobby legislators for funding to complete the extension of Route 37 to Warwick Avenue.
Janice Pangman, who lives in the Lakeside Drive neighborhood, urged the committee not to forget the residents and “do the responsible thing.”
Although both sides have observed a rule of not talking about negotiations, what’s being discussed is believed to generally follow the ten issues identified in a memorandum of agreement reached with the mayor and rejected by the council more than a year ago. Key elements include the relocation of the Winslow Park playing fields and efforts to monitor water and air quality. Merolla would also like guarantees to acquire homes and businesses impacted by developments before the projects are completed.
Vella-Wilkinson called Thursday’s meeting with RIAC “productive.” She said the session that started about 7 went until after 10 p.m.
“I’m still optimistic. I hope we’re moving in the right direction,” Merolla said yesterday.