Cities grapple with fly-away airport growth

Neighbors and small-plane owners bemoan airport moves and expansions.

In Orange County, Calif., the push to move an airport from wealthy Newport Beach to almost-as-wealthy Irvine has some residents turning redder than Tiger Woods' golf shirt.

In Boston, the proposal to expand Logan Airport by adding a new runway has some neighbors shouting louder than a jumbo jet.

Here in Austin, the decision to close the downtown Mueller Airport in favor of a bucolic former air force base has some residents reading the riot act.

What is it about airports that raises the temperature of calm citizens to the ignition point? For one thing, it pits the general aviation community - owners of small planes - against an infrastructure designed mainly for commercial airlines.

But it also touches on fundamental issues in the lives of ordinary citizens from noise levels, to property values, to jobs. It's hard to embrace a change that lengthens your drive to the airport or that interrupts your phone calls with the rumble of a Boeing 747 taking off.

"Because people resist change in general, this is just another example of how heated things can become," says Aaron Gellman, director of the Transportation Center at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. "You cannot build one airport to replace another without some dislocation along the way. The best hope is that the social benefits will exceed the social costs."

Primer on growth perils

Austin is not alone in its infrastructure imbroglio, but it offers a good primer on the perils of growth. Six years ago, city leaders proposed a $400 million bond issue to buy up the decommissioned Bergstrom Air Force Base and simultaneously close down the city's aging Robert Mueller Airport. Air-traffic officials argued that Mueller and Bergstrom shared the same landing pattern, so both could not be kept open. Austin voters passed the bond.

But since, the owners of small planes have organized a minor but loud revolt. More than half said they would not move to the new airport when it opens on May 2, mostly because of the higher rent and fuel costs. Some service businesses, such as airplane mechanics, have decided to leave the Austin market altogether.

"The city of Austin doesn't want you to come if you're in general aviation," says Lawson Calwell, chief pilot for a local car dealership that has corporate jets at Mueller. "They'd rather see the big airlines flying into Bergstrom, because they make more money per person on the airline tickets."

Barry Bray, who owns Bray Aircraft Service, a small-airplane repair shop at Mueller, says he won't be moving to Bergstrom because his rent at the new airport would be tripled. "I'll probably go to Georgetown or Dallas," he says. The worst part about the closing of Mueller, he says, is that another local airport, Austin Executive Airpark, is closing within a month of Mueller.

If the greatest noisemakers in this debate are owners of small planes - 70 percent of whom say they fly for business rather than pleasure - their dismay may be rooted in a downward trend in the number of airports they can call home. Nationwide, public-use airports that service smaller planes have decreased from 7,000 to 5,200 in the past 20 years, at a time when demand for general aviation is rising. Most discouraging is that the areas that most need new airport facilities - the fastest growing cities - are also the most organized in fighting airport expansion.

"An airport is a very polarizing thing," says Mac McClellan, editor in chief of Flying magazine in Greenwich, Conn. "It's affluent communities that have the greatest demand for airports, places like Austin or here in Greenwich, which is a center of corporate activities. But it's these very communities where it is toughest to build an airport, because the surrounding communities are constantly attacking it. It's the typical NIMBY situation: not in my backyard."

Source of jobs

The Austin airport squabble has prompted state Rep. Ron Wilson (D) to propose that Austin's Mueller Airport be kept open for general aviation, and as a source for jobs for the mostly Hispanic and African-American neighborhoods of East Austin, where Mueller is located. As an additional prod, Mr. Wilson has filed a companion bill that would abolish the city of Austin and turn it into a state-run "District of Travis."

"The District of Travis bill was a wake-up call," says Wilson, who himself lives part time in East Austin during legislative sessions. "Austin has had a no-growth mentality for the last 20 to 25 years. So you don't fund infrastructure upgrades. They don't even have a highway out to Bergstrom, and there won't be until 2003."

Wilson says that for all of Austin's reputation for environmental and liberal politics, the city generally favors the property rights of affluent homeowners in the mostly white western side - and even the habitats of endangered salamanders - more than it does the livelihoods of Hispanics and African-Americans in less affluent East Austin.

"We have kids in East Austin who don't have shoes, and these knuckleheads are spending $60 million [to buy up greenbelt land] to save golden-cheeked warblers and salamanders," says Wilson, himself an African-American who grew up in East Austin.

Of course, Austin officials are hoping most of these issues will be settled by the time Bergstrom opens on May 2. While they acknowledge that fees for everyone - from Boeing 767s to the canoe-length Cessnas - will rise dramatically at the new airport, they say the new services at Bergstrom will be worth every penny.

"They're getting a state-of-the-art facility in every sense of the word," says Holland Young, manager of planning for Bergstrom. "They'll get a new 9,000-foot runway, compared to the 7,200-foot runway at Mueller, and they'll get a Category II instrument landing system, which means they can land in low visibility."

Even so, Mr. Young says that city officials acknowledge small planes have not been signing up in droves. While 70 percent of general-aviation pilots said back in 1993 they would move to Bergstrom, in 1997 only 24 percent said they would move. "That was a jolt to us," Young says.

Facing the real test

For Barry Bray, the airplane-service owner, the real test for Bergstrom will come on the first day that travelers confront the traffic out to Bergstrom.

"You've got a two-lane highway all the way out there," he says. "The city says the new airport is just seven minutes farther than Mueller. I'll buy you a steak dinner if you can make that at 5:30 in the afternoon."

One can assume that vegetarians need not apply.

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