Lawsuit and airport’s district chair say $42 million safety plan won’t make flying safer.
Thursday, August 18, 2011
Nervous fliers may be familiar with the runaway plane scenarios that can play through the mind at takeoff or landing. Such passengers may take comfort in cushiony installations that have been added to runways at 35 airports around the country.
Imagine a concrete version of a children’s ball pit, a hard surface with enough give that it sinks a bit under weight, and you have something like the high-friction engineered material arresting system [EMAS] that can slow and stop a plane that zooms beyond the edge of a runway.
Monterey Peninsula Airport has had no incidents of runaway planes since it opened in 1936. But the Monterey Peninsula Airport District has plans for a $42 million safety improvement project that includes two off-runway systems.
Not only does Dick Searle, chair of the Airport District board, have serious doubts about whether EMAS would actually make the airport safer, but he, as well as neighborhood activists, think the entire project is a maneuver to build an access road through the airport’s property to a would-be office park on its north side – an item in the airport’s master plan for future development.
“The whole thing is just crazy,” Searle says. “We don’t need it.”
The Highway 68 Coalition agrees with Searle, and in a complaint filed June 3, calls for an injunction against the project.
The neighborhood group takes issue with the environmental impact report, arguing it fails to adequately address alternatives and greenhouse gas emissions.
The coalition also views the construction of a new access road that would open up to Highway 68 north of the airport as a step in the district’s long-term plan to build a 45-acre office and industrial park on its northern property.
“It’s an improvement for an office park masquerading as a safety improvement and that’s just not right,” Alexander Henson, the coalition’s attorney.
But Derek Cole, an attorney with Roseville-based Cota Cole LLP who is representing the airport, says it’s all part of one safety project. “The runway safety improvements cannot occur without construction of an access road,” he says.
Airport Deputy Manager Mark Bautista says the road isn’t necessary for constructing the EMAS safety system, but without it, “The problem is we’d have to have everyone drive across the runway in order to get to the other side.”
He also says there is no planned commercial development anywhere on the airport’s property, and claims that the proposed road would serve an office park are misplaced. “It’s strictly for maintenance, safety and operations.”
All told, the project would feature four structures: EMAS on each side of one runway, the road and an 80-foot retaining wall comprised of 10 terraced panels. The EIR indicates 201 oak trees and 7 Monterey Pines would be removed.
The Federal Aviation Administration has set a safety compliance deadline for 2015. It’s unclear what penalty could be leveraged. “There’s a whole host of things that can happen,” says FAA spokesperson Marcia Alexander-Adams.
Searle, the lone dissenting vote, flew a B24 in World War II. He says EMAS only provides a substantial safety improvement at airports with icy runways or at high altitude where liftoff is difficult.
A hearing date is set for March 29, 2012 in Monterey County Superior Court. Meanwhile, the airport is moving forward with the project; Granite Construction is to begin preparing planning documents this September.
So far, the airport district has paid $4.6 million in project consulting fees.