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Getting off the Ground

Michael J. Ring

Governor Cellucci, you are not clear for takeoff.

That is the loud and clear message from residents of East Boston and other neighborhoods surrounding Logan Airport regarding the Massachusetts Port Authority’s plan to build a new runway at Logan Airport. In addition to immense neighborhood opposition, politicians, including Representatives J. Joseph Moakley (D-South Boston), Michael Capuano (D-Somerville), and Boston Mayor Tom Menino, have spoken out against the runway.

Historically, airport politics, as most politics around here, have been territorial turf wars. Massport’s tendency to be less than fully honest and forthcoming has not helped. And to be sure, there is plenty of “not in my backyard syndrome” in this latest expansion proposal. But, given what the people of East Boston have to put up with, cries of NIMBY are certainly justified.

Supporters of Runway 14/32, as it is so called, argue it will reduce congestion and delays at one of the nation’s most delay-prone airports. This argument makes sense in the short run. But looking below the surface of this proposal, I fail to see how it will reduce congestion in the long term. The runway is designed for small jets and commuter planes, not the type of traffic that should be attracted to Logan anyway. There are plenty of smaller airports throughout New England that can accommodate regional jets and turboprops. To flood Logan with even more of these crafts may someday choke the airport.

Two of these smaller airports, in Manchester, New Hampshire and Providence, Rhode Island, have seen huge traffic increases this decade by attracting such regional service. But New England’s second-largest city, Worcester, lacks such air connections despite a $12 million terminal renovation and a new runway lighting system. Turboprop service to New York, Philadelphia, and Albany are the only passenger services available at Worcester. While Massport, which helps the city of Worcester manage its airport, often talks of bringing jet service to Worcester to help alleviate some of Logan’s burden, little action has taken place thus far.

A second alternative to alleviating Logan’s traffic nightmare is using Hanscom Field in Bedford, an airstrip about fifteen miles northwest of the city owned by Massport. Located in the heart of the suburban computer industry, Hanscom is in a perfect location for offering flights to other Northeastern cities.

However, the residents living around Hanscom also have a streak of NIMBY syndrome. And more importantly, they have what the people of Eastie do not -- money, and therefore political power to make sure the passenger service never takes off. Hanscom is surrounded by some of the richest towns in the state, and they do not want to see an airport, with its noise and pollution, in their backyard.

Their vocal opposition raises questions of environmental justice. Projects of negative environmental impact are steered way from rich communities and toward poor ones. The wealth and power of Hanscom-area residents can force expansion plans to an overcrowded Logan, surrounded by an overburdened, working class neighborhood of East Boston. It is more than reasonable to demand that the burden of air traffic be shared throughout the metropolitan area. But, in the absence of extraordinary courage from state officials and Massport bureaucrats, Hanscom will not be seriously considered for an expansion of air traffic.

There is one solution coming on track later this year that, if successful, will reduce some of the burden at Logan. The Acela, the new Amtrak high-speed train, will cut Boston-New York downtown-to-downtown travel time to three hours, and New York-Washington travel time to two and one-half hours. The new rail service should be cleaner and quieter than air travel, and far more preferable to the long cab rides through gridlocked traffic to and from airports. But air travel will nonetheless continue to grow, and, while the new train service may provide some relief, it does not solve the long-term problems of airport congestion.

Given that the people of East Boston have suffered long enough, and Logan has a dire lack of geographical space to expand, improving service out of Worcester and shifting the air traffic burden to Hanscom seem to be sensible ideas. But it’s sad that in the turbulent world of airport politics logic and common sense never get off the ground, buried by wealth and power.