WASHINGTON — The Bush administration, eager to ease airport delays, plans to speed construction of additional runways at major airports across the country by expediting reviews of their environmental impact.
The policy shift--certain to raise concerns among environmental groups over noise and air pollution--comes as the Federal Aviation Administration has concluded that more runways offer a quicker answer to air travel gridlock than the ongoing high-tech modernization of air traffic control computers.
The new approach, which has bipartisan support in Congress, will have implications for airport battles around the country, including disputes over expanding Los Angeles International Airport and building a new commercial airport at the closed El Toro Marine base.
It can now take 10 years or more to get a new runway approved because of the lengthy process of obtaining federal and state environmental permits. A review last year by the General Accounting Office, the investigative agency of Congress, found that the time spent does not always translate into better protection for people and wildlife near airports.
Only six new runways were built during the 1990s, when airline departures increased by more than 25% to 8.6 million a year. In an example of how long such construction can take, a runway in Orlando, Fla., originally proposed in the early 1980s will open in 2003. According to the FAA, 30 additional runways are under discussion or in some stage of development at major airports. Meanwhile, the number of airline passengers is expected to grow 50% by 2010, from more than 600 million a year to more than 900 million.
Environmental activists said that any effort to rush environmental approvals would be harmful. "Streamlining is a code word for either truncating or waiving environmental laws and reducing or eliminating meaningful public participation," said Marty Hayden, legislative director of the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund in Washington.
But Catherine M. Lang, the FAA's head of airport planning, said in an interview that the agency does not intend to give environmental laws short shrift. "We have to reduce the delays in trying to bring new runways on line while still maintaining a balanced and protective view of the environment," Lang said.
In Orange County, supporters of a new airport at El Toro are upbeat about their prospects under the Bush administration. The Board of Supervisors last month approved spending more than $1 million for Washington lobbyists, and supporters have been counting on personal lobbying by George Agyros, the airport's chief booster and a major GOP fund-raiser.
The timetable for completing the federal environmental approvals for El Toro is more than four years behind schedule, but federal officials say the county is also behind on its own approvals. The county hopes to approve its review, required under state law, in September. Federal officials said they expect to complete theirs in early 2002.
Airport foes, who are meeting with their own Washington lobbying team this week, said safety is an issue that cannot be rushed.
"If the Bush administration can figure out how to fly planes into mountains, then so be it, but they need to acknowledge that El Toro hasn't been studied and there's no safety analysis," said Meg Waters, spokeswoman for a coalition of cities opposed to the airport.
Bruce Nestande, a proponent of the airport, said he stressed the lack of airport capacity earlier this month during a meeting of the president's transportation transition team.
"My message was that the FAA must become more proactive in identifying and bringing on-line safe airport expansions and new airport construction," he said. "It's clearly in the national interest."
Until recently, the FAA has stressed air traffic control modernization as the solution to delays. But Steven Brown, the FAA's head of air traffic services, said that the agency now believes high-tech is not a panacea and that other answers must be pursued at the same time.
Brown said the FAA estimates that technology improvements in the pipeline would add three to five "operations"--takeoffs or landings--an hour at a typical major airport. By contrast, a new runway would allow 30 to 40 additional operations in the same time.
"Overall, runways produce the greatest amount of capacity compared to all other actions out there," Brown acknowledged.
Those statistics are startling, said Darryl Jenkins, director of George Washington University's aviation program. "Even if we were to have the most modern air traffic control system, we could not increase capacity significantly," he said. "So runways are where we should be concentrating our efforts."