DANIA BEACH – From a new mountain towering 65 feet over Federal Highway, U.S. Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Lois Frankel surveyed a massive airport construction project Monday and said they were pleased with the view.
Touring what will become Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport’s new South runway in less than 18 months, they saw crews unloading fill from train cars, watched special equipment pack the soil, and learned about the six tunnels that will carry traffic under parts of the new runway – most notably Federal Highway.
As of Monday, county Aviation Director Kent George said the runway is about 50 percent complete. It’s scheduled to open Sept. 18, 2014.
George told Wasserman Schultz and Frankel that the $790 million project is spending about $1 million a day. “The jobs that are being created simply by the investment in infrastructure expansion here [are] really incredibly helpful,” Wasserman Schultz said. “That’s really a huge boost economically for South Florida.”
Frankel agreed. “To me this is about jobs. You have over 600 people working here today. In the long run you’re going to get planes in and out quicker … and it’s going to mean this airport will become more of an economic driver.”
George said a cost-benefit analysis said the cost of the project would be made up in 3.5 to 5 years, largely because of savings from reduced flight delays. He said the expansion would ramp up the airport’s ability to serve as a regional economic engine.
It’s not all good news for American jobs. At the far western end of the new runway, Ronald Murtha, program director for engineering and construction firm Parsons Corp., pointed out a large piece of equipment that taps on the ground so it’s sufficiently compacted. Murtha said it was Japanese.
Wasserman Schultz is a Weston Democrat whose district includes the airport and nearby residential communities. Frankel, a Democrat whose Broward-Palm Beach county district is just north of the airport, is a member of the House Transportation Committee who wants to make infrastructure improvements a centerpiece of her first term in Congress.
Wasserman Schultz said she used to hear many complaints from neighbors about what “was an extremely controversial project even in conception,” but opposition has dwindled as the idea started turning into reality.
Right now, there aren’t any operating restrictions on the new runway, but George said that is a subject for negotiations with residents of Dania Beach, some of whom spent years attempting to thwart the airport expansion. Wasserman Schultz said she’d like to see the county and residents come to a “mutually agreeable conclusion” on runway usage.
On May 7, the airport will close its backup runway, which crosses the new runway site, so it can be ripped up and replacement work begun. George said that would lead to delays until the new runway opens.
Both members of Congress are concerned about the impact of the federal budget cuts known as sequestration on the operations at control towers at the nation’s general aviation airports. Federal air traffic control operations are scheduled to stop Sunday at North Perry Airport, a general aviation field in Pembroke Pines, and May 5 at Boca Raton Airport, Frankel and Wasserman Schultz said.
Wasserman Schultz, whose district runs up to the northern border of North Perry, huddled with Frankel George, and Broward Mayor Kristin Jacobs, and said she hopes members of Congress can take to the House floor to generate interest in the air traffic control cuts when Congress returns to Washington next week from its two-week Easter-Passover recess.
“It’s dangerous,” Wasserman Schultz said.
Jacobs said the County Commission would consider on Tuesday whether the county should pick up the estimated $43,000 monthly cost of taking over air traffic control operations at North Perry. She said she’s concerned that if the county takes that step, the federal government would never resume operations and the county would end up covering the costs forever. That needs to be weighted against safety considerations from pilots using the airport based on what they can see, Jacobs said.
“We don’t know for how long it would be and we don’t know if we’d ever be reimbursed for those dollars or if they’d ever take it back. There’s a lot of things for us to understand,” she said.