Bay City News
More runways at San Francisco International Airport could smooth the way for better-flowing air traffic, but objections to the plan from Bay area residents are likely to trigger some heavy turbulence.
Concerned San Mateo County residents packed a meeting in Redwood City last night to discuss the environmental impacts of a proposed runway expansion at SFO onto Bay fill.
Three people in the front and center of the runway debate – Lyn Calerdine of SFO, Peter Thorn of Save the Bay and Ralph Nobles of the Restore San Francisco Bay Associates – fielded questions for about an hour last night at the Redwood City public library, discussing the merits and faults of a evelopment plan that many residents fear is a fait accompli.
Virtually all citizens in attendance expressed disapproval of the idea of filling in more of the Bay. More than one person pointedly questioned airport officials' stated motives and methods, giving planners plenty of food for thought as they prepare for the complex approval process.
It was also the first opportunity for Peninsula residents to ask questions about the Regional Airport Planning Committee report issued Friday, which recommended the construction of new runways.
The committee's report has been widely characterized as a blank check for airport officials in San Francisco and Oakland to go ahead with plans to build new runways out onto San Francisco Bay.
“A lot of us think they dropped the ball,'' Thorner said in reference to the plan, which was summarily blasted by environmentalists last week, claiming it lacked vision and blindly accepted airline projections of a doubling of demand in the next 20 years.
Thorner also reiterated complaints that the board's plan lacked substantive discussion of alternatives to runway construction, and failed to coordinate regional transit needs.
“Should the airlines operate within the environment that exists,” he asked, “or should they be allowed to modify the environment?”
In response, SFO's Calerdine restated the airport's unconditional need for wider, longer, properly aligned runways to allow larger modern aircraft to land safely and avoid weather-induced delays.
Under its current configuration, airport officials must shut down two of four runways in foggy or inclement conditions – cutting the number of arriving and departing flights in half. This is because the 750 feet of space between parallel strips violates certain Federal Aviation Administration guidelines.
“The project is based on an existing need, not just on a forecast need,” he said.
Calerdine also said the problem of alleviating the area's congested runways and air corridors was not one of regional planning, but of federal laws that prevent the airports from forcing airlines to alter or reschedule flights.
“RAPC is not in the business of changing the law,” he said, later noting that the airport has tried to pressure its biggest carrier, United Airlines, to increase the size of its planes and reduce the frequency of its shuttle flights, without success. “The fact is, it's not going to help in terms of solving the delay
problem,” he said. “You just can't tell the airlines where to fly.”
Thorner said that if the law is the problem, then the law needs to go.
“I would suggest that we do need to change the law,” he declared, to mild applause from the public.
“It may be that getting airlines to operate rationally, within our environment, may require a change,” he said.
The evening’s only real note of moderation came from Nobles, an environmentalist who would prefer trading off the runway expansion for the restoration of as much as 45 square miles of South Bay salt ponds, owned by the Cargill Salt Corp.
“I think that when you can make the Bay healthier and larger, then that’s something you have got to do,” he said.
After the meeting, SFO's Calerdine said he respected residents’ input, even if much of it opposed the airport's cause.
“It's good to have a lot of differing opinion,” he said. “That means we're going to be held to a high standard.” He continued, “The burden is going to be on us to prove the project can be done in a responsible manner.”