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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

San Francisco Airport Expansion

Air Date: Week of

Cheryl Colopy reports on San Francisco airport's plan to build new runways. The runways would reach into San Francisco Bay and will likely require landfill. Environmental activists say more planes mean more air pollution and noise, and loss of sensitive habitats. But San Francisco, along with other airports across the country, are under increased pressure to accommodate more planes.


CURWOOD: The San Francisco Airport has plans to build new runways that would stretch well into San Francisco Bay. Officials say the massive project is needed to respond to the demand for air traffic and protect public safety. But critics say there are smarter alternatives that would cost less, and protect the sensitive environment of the bay as well as people. From member station KQED, Cheryl Colopy reports.

(Jet engines)

WOMAN: These are 747s

WOMAN 2: All three?

WOMAN: All three.

COLOPY: Seen from the control tower, the choreography of flights in and out of San Francisco International Airport is stunning. In the space of 20 minutes, more than 20 flights land or take off, even though the airport's two pairs of runways intersect. That means a 747 which has just lumbered into position for takeoff must pause a few beats to let a pair of midsized shuttles swoop down and start taxiing toward the terminal. This is a typical day at SFO, or rather a typical bright sunny day, when pilots descending in tandem toward the parallel runways can almost wave at each other. But come rain or fog and this elaborate dance ends, because the Federal Aviation Administration cuts the number of planes allowed in half. Downstairs in his office, SFO's Public Affairs Director Ron Wilson says that's because in bad weather pilots can't see each other.

WILSON: The FAA in Herndon, Virginia, will impose a flow restriction on San Francisco and reduce our flow rate from 60 an hour to 30. The problem is that the airline schedule is based on this flow of 60. What do we do with the other 30 airplanes that are wanting to land in San Francisco? So it dominoes through the day, and by two o'clock in the afternoon, if we have bad weather all day, we have delays of two and three hours.

COLOPY: Mr. Wilson says the airport wants to build two new runways and shut down two of the old ones. Even in bad weather the airlines would be able to stay on schedule, he says, because the new configuration would leave a lot of room between runways. But there's so little land here, new runways would require filling the bay, up to 1,300 acres or several square miles. And many fear such disruption could change the currents in the bay and stir up sediments contaminated with mercury and other poisons. Retired air traffic controller Rod Stewart, now a community activist, says occasional bad weather delays are part of travel, and new runways at SFO won't do enough good to justify pouring concrete into the bay.

STEWART: Enlarging these airports isn't going to solve the delay problem. It's just going to increase it, just like more freeways has not solved morning rush hour.

COLOPY: Mr. Stewart argues for airports and airlines throughout the state to cooperate for the good of travelers. Airlines could be encouraged to space flights out instead of having many leaving near the same time for the same destinations. And in the Bay Area, he argues for using Oakland and San Jose for commuter flights to reduce traffic at San Francisco's airport. Rod Stewart says a few years ago, he was persuaded SFO needed new runways. Now he thinks money would be better spent creating a system to move passengers between the region's airports quickly, over land or over water, instead of on new runways. But the Bay Area's airports are businesses competing for travelers. SFO's Ron Wilson.

WILSON: And I don't know that you'll ever see a regional approach that all three airports would get together cooperatively. It's kind of like a dog staking out its territory.

COLOPY: But critics of the airport's plan say piecemeal planning won't meet the public's needs in terms of air travel any better than it's met them on the ground. David Lewis is the executive director of the environmental group Save the Bay. He points to Bay Area transit systems that don't link up and freeway gridlock as the result of the kind of old-fashioned planning approach the airport is now pursuing.

LEWIS: Well, I think you'll hear an undertone from the airport that putting that pressure on this project is unfair. That they can't take responsibility for the way California has grown and might be growing, and the way the region is changing. And so it's unfair to ask them to do that. But in fact, the law requires it, and for a very good reason. It's vital to look at the cumulative impacts that one project, especially a large project, has on a whole system.

COLOPY: And especially a project that will cost three-and-a-half billion dollars, while causing further insult to the ailing ecosystem of San Francisco Bay. David Lewis says the money could be a down-payment on high-speed rail between the Bay Area and Los Angeles, the route covered by the bulk of flights.

MAN: Yeah, I've sailed this. And I've sailed with fish...

COLOPY: At Coyote Point on San Francisco Bay, wind surfers are getting ready for tomorrow's Wind Fest. Thousands of enthusiasts will gather just south of San Francisco airport for races and demonstrations of new types of sails and boards.

ROBERSON: This is two-eight left and right. See the approach lights on the red? The red steel?

COLOPY: Bill Roberson is the president of the San Francisco Board Sailing Association. He's talking to visiting wind-surfer Bill Klein of Oregon and showing him where proposed new runways for San Francisco airport would extend into the choppy gray-green surf.

ROBERSON: Yeah, the runway would be right there. It would be right in front of you. Actually smack right in the middle of some of our long-distance courses.

KLEIN: How far out would it go?

ROBERSON: It would go three miles this way.

KLEIN: They're going to build a three-mile runway out there? You've got to be kidding.

ROBERSON: The runway itself would be over two...

(Wind blows flags)

COLOPY: We're about a mile as the gull flies from the edge of SFO's current runways. As flags whip in the wind, Bill Roberson says it's one of the best wind-surfing spots in the bay, even in the world.

ROBERSON: Well, essentially, Coyote Point is eliminated as a wind-surfing location if they put that new runway two-eight right in. You would be able to sail inside between the runway and where we are now, but remember, our park, our environment is out there in the channel. It's just on the other side of where the runway will be.

COLOPY: Mr. Roberson is more than just a worried wind-surfer. He's also a former Navy test pilot and a licensed airline pilot. He says SFO doesn't really need new runways. He says radar equipment widely in use right now at other airports could reduce delays, and in a few years global positioning technology will let pilots know precisely, to within an inch, where other planes are. Even if they can't see each other. Airport officials say they plan to use some of the new technology but call these measures band-aids. This disturbs Bill Roberson.

ROBERSON: My greatest concern is, they're going to build this big runway and then they're going to implement this stuff, and they're going to say that it's the runway that solved the problems, and it's not. It's the technology that we have that they're going to implement to solve their problems when the runway doesn't.

COLOPY: As a concession to environmentalists, the airport has proposed spending $200 million to restore wetlands at the southern end of San Francisco Bay. And, convinced the airport will manage to get the runways it wants, some environmentalists are going along with this plan. Already the state legislature has passed a bill speeding up the permitting process. There will continue to be enormous political pressure on various state and federal agencies to approve the runways, both because San Francisco is eager to compete with cities like Los Angeles and Seattle for traffic to Asia, and because this could be the largest public works project in San Francisco's history. For Living on Earth, I'm Cheryl Colopy.



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