SOUTH PORTLAND — Portland International Jetport officials met again this week with the City Council to discuss plans to lengthen the airport’s cross-wind runway. And again they left not knowing whether the council will support a zone change to allow the project.

The airport, which lies in Portland and South Portland, wants to extend the runway by 1,100 feet on the South Portland side to create safety zones. The crosswind runway is only used for about 1.4 percent of all flights, typically when weather or maintenance prevents the use of the main runway.

Jetport officials have met several times with the council, which previously withheld its support to pressure the airport to build a hiking trail around the airport perimeter. Although the Federal Aviation Adminstration didn’t allow the airport to build the trail the city wanted, the Jetport worked with local trail groups to draft a plan for a different trail.  

While the trail issue has been resolved, the airport and council now seem to have reached an impasse over possible noise impact from the runway expansion. Only three councilors said they would support the zone change on Monday night; five votes are needed to push it through.

On Tuesday, City Manager Jim Gailey said city staff would work with jetport officials to see if they can address the council’s concerns.

Jetport Manager Paul Bradbury said the U.S. Congress enacted a law requiring airports to build proper safety zones by 2015, because of an increased number of runway overruns. Failure to comply would cause the Jetport to lose FAA funding for infrastructure projects at a time when it needs federal money to repave the main runway. 

The expansion would bring the crosswind runway 1,100 feet closer to South Portland’s West End. Planes would be taking off and landing 600 feet closer to Brickhill, since a portion of the Portland side of the crosswind runway would need to be designated as a safety zone.

Councilor Linda Boudreau, who serves of the jetport’s noise committee, wondered openly whether the project was meant to appease residents in Portland’s Stroudwater neighborhood who complain the loudest about airport noise. 

“This is really about safety and overruns,” Bradbury said. “This isn’t just a game to shift the runway from Stroudwater to South Portland because of some political pressure. It’s a safety problem and we’re trying to fix it.”

Councilors grilled Jetport officials about possible noise impacts, but Bradbury said runway would be used primarily by smaller planes with 50 seats or less rather than airliners. He said noise projections indicate that an increased noise would stay within the Jetport’s boundaries.

“In general, for people living to the south of the airport, their bigger (noise) concern is (Interstate) 295,” Bradbury said. “They probably have a background noise level that is substantially higher than anything the airport is generating on the crosswind runway.”  

Airplane noise is a greater concern for South Portland’s East End residents, Bradbury said, since they are directly below the approach to the main runway. The airport has been working on reducing the number of residential fly-overs, encouraging pilots instead to fly directly over the harbor. 

Councilor Jim Hughes said he did not support the expansion because the Jetport had another – albeit more expensive – alternative for meeting the FAA requirements. That alternative is to build a collapsible ramp, similar to those built to stop runaway tractor trailer trucks on highways.

But Paul Bradbury, the jeport manager, said the FAA has serious concerns about that option, which would add $1 million or more to the $10 million project and requires more maintenance. 

Bradbury said the collapsible safety zone would only be approved by the FAA if the jetport didn’t have the land available to build a longer runway.

“We can make this land not available to you,” Hughes said.

Mayor Tom Blake, who said he reluctantly supports the plan, advocated for the jetport to build a sound barrier to protect the Brickhill neighborhood. But jetport Deputy Director of Operations Artie Sewall said the wall would have to be rather tall to shield Brickhill, which is elevated above the runway. Bradbury, meanwhile, said the FAA and pilots typically do not like to see large walls near their runways.

Councilor Patti Smith said she did not know how she would vote on the zone change, while Councilor Maxine Beecher said she may support it with “assurances” the airport would address any sound problems that may arise. It is unclear how Councilor-elect Rosemarie DeAngelis will vote.  

Hughes, however, was steadfast in his opposition.

“I can see no good reason for doing this,” he said. “I’m afraid of OK’ing something that will come back and bite us in the future. We already have noise problems out there and this will be adding to them.”

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661-ext. 100 or [email protected]    

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