Last week officials cut the ribbon on a new 7,000-foot runway at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport. It's the only runway to be commissioned at a major U.S. airport this year and most government officials and business leaders agree it will be a much-needed engine for economic development in the region. But the current five-year, $1.5 billion expansion project has sparked concern from some communities worried about noise from increased air traffic. One suburb of the landlocked airport is facing the loss of nearly 500 homes if a controversial third runway is built by 2015. And the city of Olmsted Falls is returning to court over the impact to water quality of nearby Abram Creek. ideastream's Karen Schaefer has this report.
Karen Schaefer: For the last year and a half, construction has been heavy in and around Cleveland Hopkins International Airport. Access roads like Brookpark and Grayton have been moved, along with many local businesses and some of NASA's Glenn Research Lab facilities. Inside the airport fence, workers bulldozed earth and poured cement for a new 7,000-foot runway that will be lengthened to 9,000 feet in 2003. Last week that new runway - designated 6L-24R - was officially opened with the take-off of Continental Flight 1510 bound for Fort Myers, Florida.
The new parallel runway means that for the first time, aircraft can take off and land at the same time. Officials say the increased capacity will help relieve air traffic congestion at the airport and attract new carriers that don't currently offer service to Cleveland. Local leaders hope it will eventually bring more than $5 billion in new businesses and jobs to the region's economy. Dennis Eckert of the Greater Cleveland Growth Association has been one of the expansion project's strongest supporters.
Dennis Eckert: Hopkins future is about creating jobs and connections, connections to an intermodal society that moves money, material and ideas. Hopkins is the airport of the future. From here, the world is within our reach.
KS: Cleveland's new runway is the only one to be commissioned by the Federal Aviation Administration at a major U.S. airport this year. Regional FAA Administrator Cecilia Huntziker says it's an important first step in a larger federal effort to improve the nation's airports.
Cecilia Huntziker: Truly one of our greatest aviation partnership successes has been the FAA's Operational Evolution Plan. The OEP is a 10-year commitment for the FAA, the airlines, and for the airports, and it includes new runways and that's why you're in it.
KS: The opening of the new runway at Hopkins is just the latest milestone in the 5-year, $1.5 billion expansion project's current phase. The project has already involved a major land swap between the cities of Cleveland and Brook Park. NASA Glenn became part of Brook Park in exchange for the IX Center, which Cleveland will tear down in preparation for a third runway city officials believe will be needed by 2015. To make way for the controversial proposed third runway, 468 homes in Brook Park will be purchased by Cleveland and razed over the next eleven years. Other suburbs surrounding the landlocked airport are receiving financial assistance to insulate about 13,000 homes against the noise from more frequent flights.
Mayor Gary Starr of Middleburg Heights says he and several other small communities have been working with Hopkins officials to mitigate noise and other pollution in the design phase.
Gary Starr: We have been successful over the last 20 years of keeping airplanes out of our communities by monitoring and being part of the process with our own set of aviation consultants and experts.
KS: But one community has responded to the airport's expansion plans with litigation. The newly-opened runway actually runs over a portion of Abram Creek. About a mile of the creek had to be redirected through a culvert and 88-acres of highest-quality wetlands were destroyed in the construction process. Normally, approval for wetland destruction must come from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency before the project is passed along to the Army Corps of Engineers for their approval process. But last year, OEPA director Chris Jones refused to rule on the issue, which violated the agency's own guidelines. Construction went ahead without EPA approval. Residents in Olmsted Falls are concerned about the impacts to water quality. Olmsted Falls Mayor Bob Blomquist says this week the city will re-file a federal lawsuit against the Army Corps and the U.S. EPA for letting the project move forward without the proper legal documents.
Bob Blomquist: What essentially we're hoping to have happen is, before they get into a stage two expansion at Hopkins airport, which involves the major destruction of a warm water habitat here in Northeast Ohio that will affect water quality is that they do that only under conditions that they have an approved process, which they do not have at this point.
KS: Blomquist says the city of Olmsted Falls will probably also file a lawsuit in Franklin County against the Ohio EPA. He wants further expansion plans for the proposed third runway halted. In the meantime, airport officials say some of the wetlands-restoration projects to mitigate the damage done at Hopkins are about four to six months behind schedule due to recent changes in the airport administration. In Cleveland, Karen Schaefer, 90.3.