Airport expansion plan stirs concern among airlines, neighbors

Mark Gale, Philadelphia airport's CEO, answers questions at Thursday's City Council committee hearing.
Mark Gale, Philadelphia airport's CEO, answers questions at Thursday's City Council committee hearing.
Posted: December 03, 2010

A $5.3 billion expansion of Philadelphia's airport - which the Nutter administration sees as vital to the region's growth - is being met with concerns from two airlines, and some nearby neighbors in Tinicum Township.

Those concerns, presented with support from Delaware County officials and soon-to-be U.S. Rep. Patrick Meehan, were expressed clearly Thursday at a City Council committee hearing.

US Airways Group Inc. and Southwest Airlines Co. object to costs they will bear to pay for the expansion, and Tinicum residents are fuming over property that will be lost to a portion of the development.

The Federal Aviation Administration is expected to give a final approval to the expansion this month.

Council has no formal role in accepting or rejecting the plan. But Councilman James Kenney, chairman of the Council's Legislative Oversight Committee, said he scheduled the hearing in part because elements of the expansion - in the works for 10 years - were not until now shared with Council members.

However, the airport and FAA did hold 20 public meetings and four public hearings between 2003 and 2008.

"I don't think the airport folks have the right to be making these decisions in a vacuum," Kenney said, noting that the airport is city-owned.

While no airline representatives were present, Kenney sought to give them a voice regarding the dramatic financial impact on them of the proposed expansion, which would include a new $1.6 billion runway to open in 2016.

About two-thirds of the project would be funded with airport-issued bonds, and payment of the debt service would come from the airlines, in fees and rates, and in revenue from concessions, parking, advertising, and car rentals.

"US Airways supports the concept of growth and long-term planning at PHL. However, we believe that premature construction of a new runway will make PHL a less economically viable airport and US Airways a less economically viable airline," US Airways' vice president for corporate real estate, Michael Minerva, wrote July 29 to Mark Gale, the airport's chief executive officer. US Airways is Philadelphia's biggest carrier.

Minerva said a new runway alone would not greatly alleviate delays in takeoffs and landings "until there is a solution to local airspace congestion." Philadelphia is in the busy Northeast air corridor.

Southwest Airlines in a July letter also questioned the cost of the expansion plan and other airport projects under consideration.

Both airlines said the debt service paid by the airport's majority airlines to fund those projects would balloon to at least $500 million next year, from about $110 million currently.

"Anytime you talk about billions in construction costs, the airlines are going to be a little tentative," Gale said, after the hearing. "Nobody has said to me, 'We are 100 percent against this.' "

He said Philadelphia could not continue to "forgo the economic benefits" associated with the expansion, including 45,000 construction jobs over 12 years and 2,880 permanent jobs.

After agreeing on financials with the airlines, the airport will move forward in the design. Because the city does not have eminent domain authority, the airport will "work with Tinicum Township to get this issue resolved," Gale said.

In addition, discussions are still ongoing with UPS Inc. about relocating.

Representatives of Philadelphia's hospitality industry said an expanded airport was critical to attracting meetings and international visitors, especially with an expanded convention center opening in just three months.

But Tinicum homeowners, such as Dolores Waldrek, were not consoled. They see the expansion as further impinging on their community.

"I'm tremendously concerned about the impact on the citizens of Tinicum," said Meehan, a Republican.

Under the expansion plan, whose cost was projected in May at $5.2 billion, the city would acquire and demolish 72 homes and 12 businesses to build a new UPS sorting facility west of the airport to make way for a fifth airport runway.

Where UPS is presently located, along the Delaware River, the new, fifth, runway would be built.

Relocating UPS to the airport's west side would reroute traffic and UPS trucks to the heart of the Tinicum neighborhood, Meehan said.

"We value UPS greatly," Gale said. "We're very hopeful we'll be able to reach an agreement with UPS, and the township, on how to move forward."

Gale said that of the 18,800 "badged" employees working at the airport, 3,500 live in Tinicum Township. An additional 1,700 to 2,000 Delaware County residents work for UPS.

The plan calls for the airport, over the next 12 to 15 years, to acquire properties in Philadelphia, east of Island Avenue. "So this is not a one-way expansion," Gale said. "The unfortunate part, we are constrained with the river on the south, and I-95 and John Heinz Wildlife Refuge to the north."

In April, the FAA released a preferred "alternative" plan, sifted from 29 options considered in 2000.

"The airport is probably the single largest economic engine in all of Southeastern Pennsylvania," Gale said. "If the airport does not expand to meet the forecasted needs, the area will miss out, and Philadelphia will remain one of the most delayed airports in the country." The airport generates more than $14 billion in regional economic activity and supports more than 141,000 jobs, Gale said.


Contact staff writer Marcia Gelbart at 215-854-2338 or mgelbart@phillynews.com.

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