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Airport capacity study released

By Greg Gelpi

Atlanta is the only metropolitan area in the country currently in need of airport expansion, and it will need to expand again by 2020, according to a federal study released Thursday.

Getting a first-hand look at efforts to meet growing demand, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta toured Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport's fifth runway and control tower construction sites.

Mineta announced the findings of the study along with $43 million in federal funding for Hartsfield-Jackson.

The report identified airports and metropolitan areas most in need of expansion by 2003, 2013 and 2020.

"As you can tell by this busy airport, passengers are back and they are back in a big way," Mineta said, adding that more passengers are returning after the sharp decline that followed the Sept. 11 attacks. "Let this report be a wakeup call across America."

About $23 million will be used to help with noise problems from the addition of a new runway. About $400 million has already been awarded to the airport to handle noise problems. The airport is preparing a study of areas most impacted by noise and the construction of the new runway.

"One thing that goes with growth is being a good neighbor," Mineta said.

The other $20 million will help fund the runway itself.

In the next 20 years, 23 airports will need expansion, according to the study, many of which are in the South and Southwest, where many baby boomers will retire and the industrial base will increase most.

"The Bush Administration is taking bold proactive steps," Mineta said. "We saw the congestion coming and we acted quickly and decisively."

Mineta said the administration is "harnessing technology" to "maximize safety and minimize delays."

In addition, the department is funding seven new runway projects in the country in the next five years, he said.

"The Atlanta airport continues to be the crown jewel of the city," Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin said of the world's busiest passenger airport.

Although the airport is on track to complete construction of its fifth runway by June 2006, the study found that more expansion would be necessary by 2020. One reason for the steady need for expansion is the fact that Hartsfield-Jackson is the only airport serving metro Atlanta.

Touring the construction sites of the airport, Mario Diaz, the airport's deputy general manager, showed Mineta and Franklin progress made on meeting the growing demand. The new $27 million control tower is up to about 232 feet and will be 398 feet tall when completed in October 2005.

"It's to support the expansion of the airport and the fifth runway," Daugherty said.

When completed, it will be the tallest control tower in North America and second tallest in the world and will enable control tower staff to see all areas of the fifth runway by eyesight.

"That looks like it will touch the clouds," Mineta said gazing up at the tower. "That's good for jobs, Madam Mayor."

About 70 workers are at the site daily, while 200 to 400 people work on the airport's fifth runway.

The 9,000-foot long fifth runway will cross over Interstate 285 and is expected to be in operation June 2006.

"Atlanta knows that investing in this airport today means investing in jobs and economic growth tomorrow," Mineta said.

Hartsfield-Jackson adds about 55,000 jobs to metro Atlanta and has an $18 billion impact on the economy annually.