Pie in the Sky
While T.F. Green’s neighbors wonder whether their houses will go next, political and economic forces buffet plans to expand the airport.
Illustration by Kim DeMarco
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The northern-most tip of Greenwood is a lost world, but Irma Carolan remembers well the Capes and bungalows that once populated it. Carolan has lived at the corner of Greeley and Bedford for forty years—long enough to raise three children, bury her husband and watch T.F. Green elbow the neighbors out.
Patches of summer-scorched grass have healed over the foundations of homes bordering the southern end of the main runway that were razed beginning in 2000. This time it may be her beige ranch that stands in the way of the latest plans to expand the state’s commercial air hub. In 2004, Governor Carcieri and Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian toured the tidy grid of streets, trailed by television cameras and reporters, to talk about “New England’s Hassle-Free Gateway.” There and then, Carolan made her stand: “I was on TV and in the newspaper, and the governor—I said to him: ‘I’m going to fight it. I intend to die in this house.’ ”
Irma Carolan is a hale eighty-one, with a mobile, unlined face under a cloud of ash-brown curls. Her demise does not appear imminent. Neither does a resolution to the conflict over extending T.F. Green’s main runway.
The Rhode Island Airport Corporation and the City of Warwick are now in their ninth year of tussling. Over time, the plans have changed and the runway length has shrunk. Initially, the new length was to be 10,500 feet; then 8,700. A proposed extension to Green’s second, cross-wind runway was ditched in 2003 as prohibitively expensive. In 2006, the airport corporation presented the Federal Aviation Administration with five new options that would have lengthened the current 7,166-foot runway to as much as 9,350 feet to accommodate nonstop flights to the West Coast.
Each option had its challenges. The various scenarios would have had an impact on Buckeye Brook and the surrounding wetlands, or required tunneling under Main Avenue, relocating parts of Airport Road, or extending Route 37 to Warwick Avenue. In every case, an expansion would gobble up homes—and most of them would be in Greenwood.
In June, the airport corporation approved the sixth and most modest option for the Federal Aviation Administration to consider: an 8,700-foot extension to the south that would require the taking of at least twenty homes. The FAA, which must approve the plan and will finance most of the construction costs, is scheduled to complete an environmental impact statement sometime in 2010.
“I think that alternative best addresses the city’s issues and needs while at the same time delivering the infrastructure to keep the airport growing for the future,” says Kevin Dillon, RIAC’s CEO since January. “T.F. Green has the shortest medium-haul runway in the country. And we can’t just look at what’s good for a 737 fleet. We need to look at what is good for a diverse fleet of airplanes.”
The city has fiercely resisted any attempts to enlarge the airport’s footprint. For Warwick, says Mayor Scott Avedisian, there isn’t much of an upside. The city, which receives no state compensation for coping with the headache of hosting the state airport, would lose more property tax revenues with the land-taking. Once-intact neighborhoods, disassembled parcel by parcel as property owners depart, strain city departments that must continue to service streets anchored by lone holdouts.
“We’ve maintained all along that this isn’t necessary,” Avedisian says. “We think that one of the things that needs to happen is to look for niche markets. The whole premise of expanding direct West Coast flights—no one is doing it. So, let’s look for the other markets where we don’t have flights.”