- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 12, 2001

The chairman of the House Transportation Committee has asked the Bush administration to investigate a controversial order by President Clinton blocking construction of a much-needed commercial airport at Florida's Homestead Air Force Base.

Rep. Don Young, Alaska Republican, wants Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta to tell him why the base closed in 1992 after being devastated by Hurricane Andrew should not be reopened as a commercial airport to relieve "chronic and worsening congestion" at the nation's airports.

Miami-Dade County, where the base is located, sought under the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Act of 1990 to convert Homestead with its 12,000-foot-long runway to a commercial airport, saying it was necessary to meet rising air-transportation needs and boost the area's hurricane-devastated economy.

The Clinton administration blocked the project with a Jan. 15 order forbidding "in perpetuity" the use of the Homestead site for a new airport, saying it posed a threat to nearby Everglades and Biscayne national parks.

But a 1994 environmental impact statement said a new airport was an acceptable use for Homestead and the Air Force issued an order conveying the property to Miami-Dade. Before the site could be transferred, the Clinton administration ordered a new review. The second study, completed in 2000, ruled that Homestead was the only feasible site and the potential environmental impact was not disqualifying.

Three members of Congress have challenged the Clinton administration decision, describing the order as a "potentially unlawful 11th-hour action" and asking President Bush to overturn it.

Florida Republican Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Lincoln Diaz-Balart, along with Rep. James V. Hansen, Utah Republican and chairman of the House Resources Committee, said the decision could have "serious consequences for the South Florida community."

They told Mr. Bush the Clinton administration ignored the facts, including the environmental studies. They said the airport was "essential in meeting growing air transportation infrastructure needs of South Florida and would provide a vital economic engine to rebuild the economy of south Miami-Dade County."

Last week, Mr. Mineta told the House Transportation Committee that congestion in U.S. transportation was a challenge facing every American, and that "nowhere is the congestion challenge more evident than in air-traffic control." In promising to look at the Homestead matter, he said the country needed more runways and more airport capacity.

Critics have questioned whether the Clinton administration sought the order to protect the environment or approved it as retribution for the Florida recount battle, which gave the election to Mr. Bush over Vice President Al Gore.

Miami-Dade County officials, along with attorneys for the airport's proposed developers, Homestead Air Base Developers Inc., have filed separate lawsuits in federal court in Washington asking that the order be overturned.

In 1992, Hurricane Andrew hit South Florida, killing 38 persons, leaving 250,000 homeless and destroying $20 billion worth of property, including Homestead Air Force Base. Rather than restore the base, the Air Force closed it. Some 8,000 jobs were lost.

The Clinton administration's decision to block construction of the new airport came after a Dec. 12 White House meeting attended by high-ranking administration officials, including Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, who had long opposed the planned airport. Between that date and the Jan. 15 order, Mr. Gore conceded the election after an unfavorable Supreme Court ruling.

Clinton spokeswoman Julia Payne did not return calls for comment.

The order, signed four days after Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, New York Democrat, was named to the Environment and Public Works Committee, opted for mixed-use development, hotels, restaurants, retail shops, golf courses and an aquarium. The Air Force kept 915 acres of runways and taxiways and offered the county the remaining 717 acres for development other than an airport.

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