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Opponents of Anchorage airport expansion pack public hearing

Jerzy Shedlock
The last time Anchorage's airport got a makeover plan, the airport was riding a robust economy with increasing cargo air traffic. Times have changed, and plans to add another runway would reroute a part of the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail. Courtesy Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport

The future of Anchorage’s international airport has been a hot topic among the city’s residents since the aviation hub began to tinker with its developmental plans last year. And on Wednesday at Coast International Inn, a rustic hotel located a stone’s throw away from the airport, more than 100 people packed a conference room to hear the latest on those plans and voice concerns about possible effects a new runway could have on a nearby trail cherished by Anchorage residents.

Among the concerns is the fact that the airport is planning expansion despite overall growth stunted by economic downturns.

The Ted Stevens International Airport Master Plan’s update includes five options, such as a limited expansion approach, in which the airport would use existing facilities and runways to accommodate modest growth; and others that would add an additional runway.

Master Plan project manager Evan Pfahler said any need for additional capacity at the airport would change with demand. “Expansion would be warranted by actual needs,” he said.  

While airport officials speaking at Wednesday’s Master Plan open house said they’re not committed to any one option, their statistics point to future expansion, as nearly all options would create a new north-south runway.

Nick Moe, the 26-year-old write-in candidate that nearly grabbed a seat on the Anchorage Assembly from incumbent Ernie Hall in elections last month, argued alternative three was the best option. The third option would optimize the existing runway for years to come; it has it’s own problems, however. Planes would need to fly over an Anchorage neighborhood.

“I hope they listen to the public outcry. There’s a lack of support for expansion,” Moe said. “Also, (the airport) needs to take a closer look at its financial numbers.”

Anchorage’s airport is overdue for a rewrite of its development plans. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) encourages commercial service airports in the U.S. to update their “master plans” every five to seven years. It’s been 11 years since Anchorage’s aviation hub updated its own master plan.

Airport traffic ebbs

Back then, Anchorage International was riding high on a robust economy and the increased air traffic potential that good times bring. The airport expected business to continue to increase at a brisk clip, 2.9 percent annually, from about 250,000 "operations" in 2000 to an expected 337,000 operations by 2011.

But that didn’t happen. According to an airport forecast reviewed by the FAA, domestic passengers arriving at and departing from Anchorage’s airport have been climbing slowly in recent years. The number of transit passengers, people who arrive at the airport and continue to their next destination on the same aircraft, also has “declined significantly.”

As currently forecasted, total passengers are expected to modestly increase at 1 percent every year. The growth rate is lower than expected, the forecast notes, because of the loss of international transit passengers.

And air cargo, long cited as an economic engine in Anchorage, continues a five-year low amid a tough global economy, stagnant consumer demand and more long-range aircraft coming online that can overfly the city's airport.

Cargo passing through Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport has fallen about 25 percent since 2007, with the decline continuing into 2013, says airport manager John Parrott.

The decline may end, and overall growth is pegged around 1.4 percent annually, according to the airport. Operations totaled 219,350 in 2010.

The airfield capacity limit for the airport is 258,000. The limit will be surpassed by 2025, according to the airport’s estimates. The airport must plan proactively, officials argue; even at a lower growth rate, the limit would be reached by 2030.

The Master Plan Update, which will “position Ted Stevens for the future by maximizing operational efficiency,” began in June 2012. If all goes according to plan, the update should be complete by December.

New runway would reroute Coastal Trail

Plans for a new runway have concerned Anchorage residents, particularly Coastal Trail lovers and West Anchorage homeowners, since the process began. They’ve long cited the alleged negative impacts of rerouting the trail but have added slow economic growth to their arguments, too.

It's “déjà vu all over again,” said commentator Bill Sherwonit, who is the author of more than a dozen books about Alaska and frequently writes about the wild nature to be found in Alaska’s urban center. Sherwonit is one of many voices against the new runway.

The new runway would destroy a section of the Coastal trail, as well as the adjoining Point Woronzof Park, advocates argue.

“We’ve been opposed for five years,” said Cathy Gleason, president of Turnagain Community Council, referring to the airport’s initial fielding of the new runway idea. “A new north-south runway regardless of where it’s placed would impact the neighborhood in terms of noise.”

Quality of life if the neighborhood’s main concern. The residents realize the quarks that come with living next to a major airport, she said, but they don’t want it to get worse.

A lot of her neighbors use the Coastal trail. And as proposed in one option, it couldn’t be used in the wintertime, she said.

Draft alternative five would require a massive amount of fill placed into the Cook Inlet and the Anchorage Wildlife Coastal Refuge, repurpose a parcel of Pt. Woronzof Park and reroute a section of the coastal trail. The trail would either stretch around the runway or tunnel underneath it.

“That’s not the coastal trail people know and enjoy,” Moe said.

Just last year, the Anchorage Assembly proposed a new West Anchorage District Plan that would’ve swapped public parks and a dog park owned by the city for lands the airport owns, which it needs to expand. Although the plan passed, no swap has occurred amid continued outcry.

Ultimately, the Master Plan is just that -- a plan, Pfahler said. Once an option is chosen, the public will have continued involvement. The airport and FAA have the final say on that choice, and if land is needed the airport will work with the property owners, he said. 

Jerzy Shedlock can be reached at jerzy(at)alaskadispatch.com