SOUTH PORTLAND — A runway expansion planned for the Portland International Jetport is being held up by special-interest groups that want to build a recreation trail around the airport and others who have concerns about aircraft noise.
The Jetport needs to expand a crosswind runway that stretches from Portland’s Stroudwater Neighborhood to South Portland’s Brick Hill neighborhood to meet safety standards set by the Federal Aviation Administration.
Airport Director Paul Bradbury said the runway expansion is not intended to expand services, but to provide airliners a safety zone in the event of an overrun.
“This is not intended to be a replacement” for the main runway, Bradbury said. “It will never be a replacement.”
Bradbury said the runway expansion is part of the Jetport master plan, which also includes a terminal expansion. But since the airport is in both Portland and South Portland, Jetport officials must present their plans to both cities.
The proposal has riled elected leaders and special-interest groups in both cities.
The Jetport’s planned terminal expansion received Portland Planning Board approval on May 12, but it came with more than a dozen conditions. One of those conditions was that the runway expansion be approved by the board, even though the runway work will be conducted entirely in South Portland. The other required the Jetport to provide an easement for a hiking trail.
Bradbury said the Jetport could not meet those requirements, and convinced the Planning Board last month to reconsider the project. He said the Jetport has retained an attorney to argue against these conditions at a hearing planned for Aug. 11.
Trail groups in both cities want the Jetport to give them easements for a two-mile trail around the runway that would connect South Portland’s Long Creek Trail to a network of trails in the Stroudwater neighborhood.
Richard Rottkov, president of the South Portland Land Trust, said greater Portland trail groups have long dreamed of building a bike and pedestrian bridge spanning Long Creek near Exit 4 of Interstate 295. He noted successful efforts to lobby the Department of Transportation to allocate an additional $1.25 million to incorporate bike and pedestrian access into a $56 million replacement of the Veteran’s Memorial Bridge as implicit support for the idea.
Mayor Tom Blake along with several other councilors advocated that the City Council invite the Land Trust to the next council workshop to hear about the proposed trail and bike-pedestrian bridge. Blake, a founder and former president of the land trust, said he does believe the Jetport’s claim that a trail cannot be built around the site.
“The FAA says we can’t do it, but I don’t buy that,” Blake said. “This is our only opportunity to get this done.”
However, Bradbury said the Jetport received a letter from the FAA stating that a trail would not be allowed on a undeveloped strip of land along the Fore River. For the trail to be approved, Bradbury said land would have to be considered to be surplus to aviation needs. The letter also said there are Portland Police Department and Transportation Security Administration concerns about aircraft and pedestrian safety.
Jeff Ryan, president of the West End Trails Committee, submitted examples of similar trails at airports in Maryland and Alaska as proof that recreation trails and airports can coexist. But Bradbury said those examples involve trails built along pre-existing roadways, not undeveloped land. He said the Jetport has agreed to work with trail groups to build trails along Jetport Plaza road in South Portland and along Yellow Bird Road in Portland.
But the trail advocates seem determined to connect those two trails.
Concerns about noise and environmental efforts to offset the destruction of 11.5 acres of wet land are also stalling the Jetport plan. Portland Planning Board Chairman David Silk, who lives in the Stroudwater neighborhood, and South Portland Councilor Jim Hughes, who lives on Broadway where a sound wall is planned to mitigate highway noise, have expressed concerns about increased Jetport noise.
Hughes said he was particularly concerned since aircraft traffic would be shifted 600 to 1,000 feet closer to South Portland.
Bradbury said noise analysis indicates there will be little increase in noise as a result of the project. City Councilor Linda Boudreau, however, did not agree.
“We are going to be bringing more noise to the West End; there’s no doubt about it,” Boudreau said. “Stroudwater’s complaints will become ours.”
Meanwhile, South Portland councilors wanted the Jetport to focus its environmental mitigation efforts in South Portland, rather than in Scarborough and Westbrook, as currently planned.
If either South Portland or Portland block the runway expansion, the airport will have to shorten the runway to meet safety requirements. That would result in some flights being diverted to other airports when conditions prohibit use of the main runway, and could provide incentive for airlines to re-evaluate Portland as a destination.
Using Continental Airlines’ decision to pull out of Bangor International Airport this month as an example, Bradbury said airline carriers can decide on a moment’s notice to pull out of an airport, which increases the operating costs for airlines that remain.
Last year, he said, the Jetport served 1.8 million passengers and generated $860 million in economic impact for the state.
Noting the tax-generating portion of the airport is in Portland, Blake suggested the council would eventually sign off on the expansion, but not before South Portland receives something in return.
“We will get there eventually,” he said. “We just need to make sure our community receives some benefit from this.”