- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 6, 2001

The expansion plans at Washington Dulles International Airport received a boost last week when Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta pledged faster authorizations for new airport runways.

"It's certainly timely in terms of where we are in our development at Dulles Airport," said Tara Hamilton, spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority.

Dulles officials announced in August they intend to build a fourth runway and have plans for another. When the "master plan" is completed, they hope to be able to handle up to 50 million passengers a year on five runways, Miss Hamilton said.

Last year, the airport handled 20.1 million passengers, which Miss Hamilton said was approaching the capacity of current facilities.

"Not only have we had growth in passengers, we've had an increase in operations," Miss Hamilton said. "You need additional runway capacity so you can avoid congestion."

If the Transportation Department streamlines the review process "it would be very beneficial to our airport and to meet the continuing demands of the region," Miss Hamilton said.

The fourth runway, along with the support facilities, are scheduled to begin operating by 2006. No date has been set for completion of the fifth runway.

Mr. Mineta spoke before the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Friday in his first major speech as transportation secretary. "We begin today to ease the process of review for expansion of airport capacity," Mr. Mineta said.

Often, the approval process for new runways can take 10 years, he said. It involves choosing a site for a runway, applying to the Federal Aviation Administration for permission, conducting an environmental-impact study, meeting with community residents to elicit their responses and getting local and federal government approval. Only then can construction begin.

Mr. Mineta acknowledged a faster runway-approval process will raise concerns that "environmental issues" will be overlooked. Though he added, "I am committed to making sure that it is not."

Mr. Mineta made his pledge the same week the Transportation Department reported that in 2000 major airlines incurred their worst record for flight delays since the agency began keeping comparable records five years ago. Planes arrived late 27.4 percent of the time last year, 14.6 percent worse than a year earlier.

Tom Yencho, spokesman for the Washington-based Airports Council International North America, said he expected the Transportation Department to streamline the runway-approval process, though procedures needed for runway construction probably would not change.

"There needs to be some kind of line that's drawn so we can speed up the process," Mr. Yencho said. Currently, U.S. airports handle about 650 million passengers per year. In 10 years, they are expected to handle about 1 billion passengers, he said.

"It took 16 years for Memphis [Tenn.] to get their runway approved and constructed," Mr. Yencho said. "This is a long, drawn-out process with all the groups you have to accommodate. With capacity the way it is, if we can't handle what we have right now, it's going to be worse 10 years from now."

Miss Hamilton said the review process Mr. Mineta mentioned was exactly the stage Dulles was in.

"That's part of our work in the next six years, to go through the environmental process, the site selection and build a new runway," Miss Hamilton said. "We've not built a new runway at Dulles since we opened it." The airport opened in 1962.

She said any faster runway-approval policies would have little effect on Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. The airport has one runway for major airlines and two for private and commuter airplanes, and there is no more space for runway expansion.

Baltimore-Washington International Airport officials, meanwhile, said if passenger growth continues at the current rate, BWI could make use of a faster runway-approval process. Last year, the airport handled 19.7 million passengers, up 12.2 percent from 17.6 million a year earlier.

"If we know in 10 years we're going to double, we can't wait seven years to begin the process," said Betsey Sanpere, BWI spokeswoman.

BWI already is expanding its concourses, gates and terminals. "In terms of an additional runway, it's only in the study stages," Miss Sanpere said.

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