U.S. Court of Appeals Affirms FAA Approval of Boston Runway

JANUARY 31, 2004

Massachusetts Port Authority officials notched an important legal victory yesterday, as a federal appeals court upheld the Federal Aviation Administration's approval of a controversial fifth runway at Logan International Airport and dismissed the arguments of citizens' groups fighting the proposal as "meritless."

The decision by the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia circuit paves the way for construction to begin later this year, according to Massport officials. They said that opponents from neighboring communities now face a shrinking number of legal options to stop or slow the project.

Runway opponents will probably appeal the ruling to the US Supreme Court, said William Manning of East Boston, a member of Citizens Against Runway Expansion. A final decision has not been made, he said. "All I can say at this point is that [the ruling is] just another indication of the general bias against citizens' groups . . . regarding challenges to airports and their ability to expand without limits," Manning said. Still, opponents conceded yesterday that their options are narrowing.

The Supreme Judicial Court heard arguments earlier this month on a complaint, brought by the town of Hull, over noise and pollution that could be expected from the proposed runway. Also, the cities of Boston or Chelsea could file an appeal with the SJC of a November 2003 decision by a Suffolk Superior Court judge to lift a decades-long injunction that prevented the runway's construction.

The FAA had approved the runway plan in August 2002. After the construction injunction was lifted, Massport was cleared to move forward with the $50 million to $60 million runway project for the first time since it was first proposed in the early 1970s. Under the conditions of the FAA approval, the 5,000-foot runway could only be used when winds out of the northwest or southeast are blowing at 10 knots or more, about 11.5 miles per hour.

Community groups said this and other mitigation measures were too weak to provide adequate environmental relief. They are also concerned that the FAA's conditions cannot and will not be enforced.

Massport spokesman Jose Juves said a date has not been set for runway construction to begin, but Massport hopes work will commence this year. "This decision validates eight years of extensive environmental analysis and public process," he said. "Many of the claims by runway opponents have been found to be baseless, and this marks another milestone in making Logan Airport a better airport for its neighbors and passengers."

Ralph Dormitzer, a member of the South Shore Jet Pollution Council and cochairman of a community advisory committee that is working with Massport and the FAA to remap flight routes to reduce noise pollution, said yesterday's decision "makes it a little harder" for opponents in their multiple court battles.

Peter L. Koff, the lawyer for Citizens Against Runway Expansion, was out of his office yesterday and did not return phone calls to his home. That organization and the city of Boston argued before the US Court of Appeals that the FAA did not adequately analyze the noise and air quality effects that the runway would have on neighboring communities. The opponents' appeal also said that the FAA, along with Massport, which owns and operates Logan, did not properly select and supervise the contractor who prepared the analysis of the runway's environmental impact.

The court, however, ruled that even if that was the case, there is no indication that this "compromised the objectivity and integrity of the . . . review process."

The community groups had also argued that the firm the FAA hired to conduct the environmental study was biased toward Massport, but the court ruling said these "remaining claims were meritless." The court also found that Logan Airport's record supports the FAA's position that the new runway, which Massport hopes will reduce flight delays, "would not significantly alter overall patterns of runway use" and would "reduce noise impacts on most of the area near the airport, including South Boston and East Boston."

"We find . . . that the FAA's determination is adequately supported by the record and satisfies the requirements" for federal funding for construction, wrote Circuit Judge Harry T. Edwards.

The FAA has vowed to enforce wind restrictions on when the new runway can be used, and members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation have threatened to cut off federal funds to Massport if the federal agency does not keep that promise.

Massport officials have argued that because of the airport's location and area wind patterns, they often are forced to close runways, leading to delays. The new runway would give the airport more landing and take-off options. Logan ranks sixth nationally in the number of flight delays, officials said.

Runway opponents, who have voiced deep distrust of Massport, argued that the additional runway will not reduce congestion, and instead enable the airport to bring in other carriers, forcing surrounding communities to put up with more jet noise and pollution.

Source: Boston Globe