Tinicum residents airsick over plans to expand Philadelphia Airport

Posted: September 02, 2010

FOR THE PAST 17 years, Judy Donovan has lived with the sound of airplanes from Philadelphia International Airport roaring over her Delaware County home. She hardly hears it anymore.

But the Federal Aviation Administration has proposed a mandatory $5 billion solution for Donovan and dozens of other Tinicum Township residents and businesses: Cut them a check and bulldoze the whole neighborhood. You want to stay? Too bad.

"My 9-year-old is asking, 'Are we going to have to move?' and saying, 'I don't want to leave my friends,' " said Donovan, a medical biller who lives on Iroquois Street near Fourth Avenue. "We're in limbo. Nobody's telling me anything."

The airport's controversial "Capacity Enhancement Program," which is moving ahead after a decade of planning and a seven-year environmental study, was heralded yesterday by Mayor Nutter, who called it Philadelphia's "top priority for creating jobs and allowing the region to be strategically positioned for growth in the future."

Airport CEO Mark Gale said it would reduce "chronic delays." The airport was the fourth-most delayed in the nation last year.

Known as "Alternative A," the project calls for adding a runway and expanding two others by acquiring adjacent land and filling in a section of the Delaware River. It's expected to reduce the average flight delay in Philadelphia to 5.2 minutes in 2025, compared to 19.3 minutes if no action were taken.

But the improvements will come largely at the expense of Tinicum Township, a close-knit riverside community of 4,200 without the political clout to stop the massive project.

"They want to do away with us!" said Donna Schrader, a 40-year township resident whose sister's home is in the expansion zone. "Eventually, it's just going to be one big airport."

The project would displace 72 households in eastern Tinicum, according to the FAA's final environmental-impact statement, completed last month. Eighty businesses would also be displaced.

"It's crazy," said Schrader, who attended a meeting Tuesday night at Tinicum Elementary School, where airport officials and consultants discussed noise-mitigation strategies. "You give them an inch and they take a yard. Look how far they've already got."

The Interboro School District, which covers Tinicum, would lose about $2 million in tax revenue under the plan.

"How are we going to make up $2 million in revenue?" asked Patrick McCarthy, a flooring contractor who runs youth sports programs in Tinicum. "The heart and soul of this township is getting taken away from us."

The expansion would also increase overhead noise for hundreds of residents, and "all of the significant impacts" would occur in Delaware County, the FAA's report said. Delco residents have long had a rocky relationship with the FAA and the airport, resulting in several lawsuits. In 2008, a furious Ridley Township couple painted the phrase "F--- U F.A.A." in 7-foot letters on their roof to protest new flight paths.

U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak, of Delaware County, said yesterday that he supports increasing the airport's efficiency, but the FAA's proposal is "not the most correct approach to our region's transportation needs" due to the impact on surrounding communities.

In Tinicum, there is deep resentment toward the FAA and the city, because they often call the shots on land and airspace issues, even though two-thirds of the airport is actually in Tinicum. The courts haven't been kind to the township, either. A federal judge this week rejected a lawsuit Tinicum filed last year to block the expansion. The township, which could appeal the ruling, argued that state law gives municipalities the right to veto such acquisitions.

"They can go three other directions to expand the airport other than toward Tinicum," said township lawyer Francis Pileggi. "It's the path of least resistance. They would rather do this than make the city voters upset by displacing city residents or businesses, because the people in Tinicum don't vote for city officials."

The FAA plans to make a final decision by December. The project is expected to take 13 years to complete, at a cost of $5.35 billion. It would create an estimated 2,880 airport jobs, in addition to 44,700 to 46,400 construction jobs.

But Thomas Giancristoforo Jr., president of Tinicum's board of commissioners, doesn't want to hear talk about job growth when his own town is losing homes and businesses as a result. He said the township's survival is at stake.

"It's a crime what they're doing to Tinicum," Giancristoforo said. "The public doesn't want this, and we need to stand up and say, 'No!' "

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