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Longer runway to go global

Pinellas County commissioners vote 5-2 to expand the strip in hopes of positioning the airport for overseas charter flights.

By MICHAEL SANDLER, Times Staff Writer
Published May 12, 2004

[Special to the Times]
This aerial photograph of St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport shows the grounds looking from south to north. A plan approved Tuesday by Pinellas County commissioners would extend the runway, now 8,800 feet, to 10,000 feet.
[Times photo: Scott Keeler]
Stephen Collins of Safety Harbor holds up a sign to show his opposition to the runway expansion.

CLEARWATER - Pinellas County commissioners took a major step toward expanding St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport on Tuesday by approving a runway extension despite growing opposition from neighbors.

The 5-2 vote did more than award contracts for design and permitting. It symbolized the commission's commitment to expand the airport and position the facility to compete with Orlando's secondary airport for overseas charter flights from the United Kingdom and continental Europe.

Last month, an aviation consultant told commissioners that expanding the runway from 8,800 feet to 10,000 feet would not guarantee any new service.

But a longer runway, along with other airport improvements, would put the county in a better position to compete with Orlando Sanford International Airport for the transatlantic charter service, the consultant said.

map Commissioners Calvin Harris, Barbara Sheen Todd, Bob Stewart, Ken Welch and Chairwoman Susan Latvala concluded that was enough to press forward. They supported the runway extension, which was first approved by the commission in 2001 but requires additional votes with each stage of the project.

"It's guaranteed we will never have a charter flight if we don't have the proper runway," Latvala said. "I think we have a responsibility to move forward."

Commissioners John Morroni and Karen Seel voted against the expansion.

The vote was a major defeat for expansion opponents in Safety Harbor, Feather Sound, Clearwater and Oldsmar - communities near the airport that are most affected by noise from low-flying planes. Commissioners effectively silenced the critics Tuesday by declining to change rules barring public comment on agenda items that are not public hearings.

The audience expressed its disapproval with hoots and hollers.

About 30 people showed up for the meeting, including Stephen Collins, a Safety Harbor resident who stood in the back of the room during the entire meeting. He held a sign that read, "Pinellas For Outdoors. Not Airport Noise. Vote No!"

"They are trading billions of real estate dollars for a few million from the feds," Collins said after the vote. "They are going to reduce property values anywhere in the flight path. There's no reason. Tampa International is five minutes away."

The total project is expected to cost $13.1-million, but about half of that will go to safety improvements at the end of the runway. The rest will cover the runway extension. The design and permitting phase will last about a year. After that, the board will vote on a construction contract, likely in June 2005, said County Administrator Steve Spratt. Construction would take another year.

Spratt was not certain when the county would begin marketing the longer runway to tour operators, but he said he expects officials from the county's convention and tourism bureau to be sharing information on the construction schedule with officials overseas.

The airport's staff also has proposed a master plan to spend more than $223-million on expansion over the next 20 years, but that plan has yet to come before the board.

County and airport officials say expanding the airport could bring thousands of jobs and a total economic benefit of $780-million annually for Pinellas.

Most of the cost associated with the extension would come from federal and state grants. The county would pay between $165,000 and $519,000.

Stewart said improving the airport at that price was too much to pass up.

Hoping to quiet the crowd, commissioners passed a resolution that directs the airport staff to "continue to aggressively pursue" reducing noise from aircraft.

Morroni called that a good gesture but not enough. He and Seel represent neighborhoods most affected by airport noise. They said the county has not done enough to answer complaints about noise.

Opponents fear the longer runway will increase the number of cargo flights. County officials say they do not want to make the airport a cargo hub, but federal law prohibits them from banning cargo planes from using the runway.

[Last modified May 12, 2004, 01:54:10]

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