Maryland officials on Thursday approved a $60 million renovation and expansion project at BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport over the objections of Comptroller Peter Franchot and residents who live near the airport.
The Board of Public Works voted 2-1 to fund the project — which airport officials say is needed to fix aging infrastructure — but the panel also voted to not allow the Linthicum airport to open more airline gates until they come back to the board for additional approval.
Gov. Larry Hogan, Franchot and Treasurer Nancy Kopp, who make up the board, all voiced concerns about low-flying jetliners in new Federal Aviation Administration flight patterns that have irritated Marylanders who live beneath the paths of the planes.
Franchot said he cast the board’s lone “no” vote against the project to try to send a message to the federal government.
“The problem is the flights, the height and altitude of the planes as they're coming in,” Franchot said. “They’re coming in where you can literally read ‘Goodyear’ on the tires as it goes over your house.”
Hogan told Franchot he was “punishing the wrong people” with his vote. The governor said the state has filed suit against the FAA to try to get the federal government to change the flight patterns.
“It should have never happened,” Hogan said of the new flight patterns. “But this project today has nothing to do with the flight patterns. The purpose of this is customer service. … To hold up this project would be a disaster in my opinion.”
BWI CEO Ricky Smith said the renovations to the Southwest Airlines terminal would upgrade an aging baggage system at the airport that has caused long waits for some passengers. He said bathrooms and the food court also would be expanded.
“The terminal is failing from a customer service standpoint,” Smith told the board. “The restrooms are overcrowded. People are walking over each in the food court. There’s no place to sit. … The baggage handling system has all but failed. I had a conversation with a gentleman the other day who said he waited three hours to get his bags.
The project approved Thursday adds five new gates and passenger waiting areas to Concourse A, as well as food and retail concession space and restrooms in a 55,000-square-foot addition.
Airport officials said they would close some gates as they add others. Board members voted to require the airport to seek additional approval by the board to increase the total number of gates.
With Thursday’s vote, the Maryland Aviation Administration said it plans to solicit bids for the project and award the job by December. The expedited procurement process would allow construction to break ground in January and finish by July 2020.
Smith said the expedited schedule is needed to retain Southwest at the airport.
“Southwest Airlines has expressed real concern about their ability to maintain existing operations without improvements to the terminal,” Smith said. “Southwest has made it clear they need to operate in a renovated facility by 2022.”
David Richardson, director of government affairs for Southwest, said any delay to the upgrades at Baltimore-Washington International would be “punishing the customers.”
“Our baggage system was designed pre-9/11,” he said. “The capacity of our baggage system has always been a problem.”
Richardson said the airline has no intention of leaving the airport, but a rundown facility could hurt business.
He also told the board the airline was pressing the FAA to change its flight patterns.
“Our desire is to fly high,” he said. “Most of the concerns could be addressed and we’re trying to work with the FAA.”
Southwest is BWI’s top airline, accounting for 68 percent of the airport’s passengers last year, or 18.2 million people. And BWI is Southwest’s second-busiest airport, with up to 243 departures a day to 64 cities, according to the Dallas-based airline. Its passenger volume at BWI grew 4.3 percent last year.
The board’s 2-1 vote came amid ample community opposition.
Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman and Howard County Council chairwoman Mary Kay Sigaty sent a letter to the panel seeking a delay, citing the flight path changes.
“Members of the Board may be aware that the Federal Aviation Administration … has implemented flight procedure changes at BWI Marshall under the NextGen program that were not subject to proper environmental reviews and which have caused harm to Maryland citizens in multiple counties, including Howard County,” Kittleman and Sigaty wrote.
Mary Reese, chairwoman of the BWI Community Roundtable, testified against the project, citing planes flying too low over communities that previously were not subjected to air traffic.
“The FAA has created an aviation noise crisis in our state,” she said. “Measures must be taken to not cause additional harm to Maryland residents. … For the people who live under these paths, it can be nonstop, every 30 seconds.”
She urged Hogan, Franchot and Kopp to stand up to the federal government.
“We own the airspace,” she said. “We’re the taxpayers and they work for us.”
The FAA last week cut off talks with state officials and the BWI Roundtable about flight noise at the airport after Attorney General Brian Frosh filed a pair of petitions last month asking the agency to readjust flight paths to reduce the noise. Howard County also filed a petition on Wednesday.
Hogan directed Frosh to file the petitions on behalf of upset neighbors of BWI and Reagan National airports who were displeased with airliners flying lower over their homes after the federal government rolled out a new system of air traffic management in 2014.
But Maria Stanco, a deputy regional administrator for FAA in New York, wrote in a July 11 email to the Maryland Aviation Administration that the legal action effectively ended the agency’s ability to move forward with the discussions with the state agency or the BWI Community Roundtable.
“Due to pending litigation we are unable to continue our conversations with the Roundtable, the Airport or the associated contractors on this issue,” Stanco wrote.
Smith said Thursday the BWI expansion has nothing to do with flight patterns and shouldn’t be blamed for the actions of the federal government.
“They are experiencing new noise because the flight patterns shifted not because operations have increased,” he said of affected residents.