The unfinished story of a runway

For almost as long as jet airliners have flown into Logan International Airport, Mary Ellen Welch has stood on her patch of East Boston turf and fought against them.

On a September day in 1968, she and dozens of friends linked arm-in-arm across Maverick Street to stop dump trucks from rumbling through this neighborhood of Italian eateries and vinyl-sided row houses on their way to the airport.

She won and, since then, has become this city's grande dame of airport obstruction.

More than 30 years later, as Logan tries yet again to add a runway, Ms. Welch - and urban activists like her around the country - are taking on greater significance. These advocates of local control, champions of the little guy in the face of powerful interests, are increasingly seen as a big reason air traffic in America is reaching gridlock.

Even as the US Transportation Department today delivers a major report on airlines' attempts to reduce consumer frustration, delays at major airports are hitting record levels. Overwhelmingly, analysts agree, the best way to dramatically and quickly ease congestion is to build runways.

Yet, as in Boston, the depth of local concern over airport expansion in cities from Chicago to San Francisco has left runway plans in a permanent state of suspension. A runway at the Seattle-Tacoma airport, for instance, was approved in 1993 but won't be completed until 2006.

The communities' questions touch on fundamental ones of fairness - health, noise, and safety. But airports counter that even when their plans adequately deal with these worries, government officials often lack the political will to anger a minority of residents for the greater good.

Earlier this month, the Bush administration weighed in when it called for a streamlining of federal and state environmental reviews, hoping to bring plans to a quicker resolution. Indeed, it's an issue of ever-greater urgency, as more and more airplanes are shoehorned onto the same number of runways. And the saga of a 5000-foot strip of asphalt in East Boston - which continues 26 years after the first page was penned - offers insight into the uncertainty and complexity of the process.

"Runway construction is more important than anything else right now," says Darryl Jenkins of the Aviation Institute at George Washington University in Ashburn, Va. "The biggest battles have to be fought at the local level, and those are the toughest."

Best-laid plans: grounded

Betty Desrosiers knows that all too well. For the better part of a decade, she's been trying to solve Boston's air-traffic woes. For much of that time, she's received a lesson in the public's fear of airport expansion.

In the beginning, the new Logan runway wasn't even on the table. The thinking was that the way to ease future airport congestion was to build a second airport. As a member of the Massachusetts Aeronautics Commission, Ms. Desrosiers's job was to find the best site.

The experience was a revelation.

On one of her first trips to a potential location - the quiet, seafaring hamlet of Buzzards Bay - the public meeting drew more than 700 people. They came in a parade of buses, streaming down the town's main street, carrying signs and banners and wearing T-shirts that proclaimed: "No second airport!"

The session ran until 1 a.m., and soon after, Buzzards Bay was struck from the list. Three years and 360 sites later, it was back to Logan and the original runway project.

The need for new runways in large cities - either at new airports or existing ones - is well documented. During the 1990s, departures from US airports rose 26 percent to 8.6 million a year, yet only six new runways were built at major hubs.

"The problem is limited to 15 airports," says Amedeo Odoni, a professor of civil engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. "It is those critical airports where we need to have an increase in capacity."

As the eighth-most-delayed airport in America, Logan is one of them. But when the new runway plans were proposed in 1995, things were supposed to be different from what they were in the 1970s.

Unlike those battles, when the Massachusetts Port Authority swallowed up the landscape with a sense of Manifest Destiny, the new watchword was cooperation. And Desrosiers, who is Massport's director of aviation planning, was a part of that.

It's easy to see why. For one, she laughs a lot. While her white-walled office, with its folders askew and its rolls of rumple-edged schematics, looks like that of an overworked architect, she cuts a more friendly figure, smiling and patient.

This patience is what has been most sorely tested during the past year. The way she sees it, Logan had done a model job of weighing the plan's impacts and involving the community - but no one was willing to make a tough decision.

Desrosiers and colleagues had gone out into the community to discuss the plans during the earliest stages. They'd given money to local leaders to hire consultants. Later, they even brought residents together at $16-a-head lasagna dinners to update them as proposals progressed.

What's more, the runway plan seemed solid.

It would be unidirectional, meaning that takeoffs and landings would occur only over the harbor, not over homes. It would allow Logan to operate at near capacity when winds were strong from the northwest - which can happen as much as one-third of the time - cutting delays by as much as 30 percent. And it would spread aircraft noise more equitably over the city and suburbs.

After four years of studies and public relations, Massport won approval from local officials in the spring of 1999. The final go-ahead from the Federal Aviation Administration seemed assured.

Not so. Last January, the FAA called for an additional 12 to 18 months of study, citing the overwhelming citywide opposition.

The delay "was not based on the plan's technical merits," says Desrosiers.

Without question, though, the plan has united more of the city against Massport. It used to be that the neighborhoods hard up against the airport made for the harshest critics. Now, in a trend mirrored nationwide, new communities are entering the fray as expansion plans impact more people.

Suburbs join the cause

Here, when runway supporters talk about spreading the sound of jet traffic, Stephen Lathrop hears that as code: His neighborhood is the new "dumping ground" for noise.

A graphics designer by day, he's made a chart that shows how, if the runway is built, new departures that take off "over the harbor" in many cases will fly directly over his home in the peninsula town of Hull. Three or four nights a week, Mr. Lathrop ferries his load of charts, maps, and tables to various city halls and meeting houses around the surrounding South Shore, talking to whomever will listen.

So far, many have. In addition to Hull, the towns of Hingham and Cohasset have pledged funds to help thwart the construction of the new runway - and unlike the blue-collar boulevards near the airport, the streets and cul-de-sacs of Hingham and Cohasset are positively posh.

To Lathrop and other critics, the solution to Logan's delays - and to others around the country - is regionalization: improving the links to underutilized regional airports so they can shoulder some of the load. Levying fees on planes that operate during the busiest times would also help.

In part, Massport agrees. It's already bought Worcester Airport, an hour's drive from Boston, in an effort to ramp up flights there. It's also trying to promote Manchester Airport in New Hampshire and T.F. Green in Rhode Island as alternatives for suburban commuters. In addition, peak-hour pricing may not be far off, officials say.

Yet the runway is still needed to reduce bad-weather delays, they add.

Many experts agree that airports need to do as much as possible on all fronts.

"We need to do a combination," says Dr. Odoni. "The one that gives the most obvious benefits is building runways,… but it is almost at an impasse. I'm very pessimistic that we will have runways."

In East Boston, it's easy to understand why.

Walking under a web of electrical wires on Sumner Street, melting snow crunching underfoot, Mary Ellen Welch greets everyone she passes by name. Bundled up in her long, dark blue overcoat and a bright red beret, she stops to talk to each one - the woman digging out her car, the mail carrier, the man shoveling his sidewalk.

Like her, they've lived in this tiny corner of Boston for most of their lives. For all that time, the airport has been just a few hundred yards away.

When the subject of the airport comes up, all speak wearily. They talk about the time in the 1960s when Massport took their signature 70-acre park and turned it into Runway 15/33. They scent the wind like weathermen, knowing exactly which runway will be used under each condition. Welch knows the Massport noise-abatement phone number by heart.

For years, Logan has been the neighbor no one liked. Repeatedly, it has broken residents' sense of civic trust. And Welch, for one, doesn't want to lose again. "If you live in East Boston, you have to be an activist," she says. "It's the only way to survive."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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