Airport Safety Regulations
August 14, 2023 8:13 AM   Subscribe

The Waukegan Illinois Airport is proposing a major project to build a new longer runway which will require the Lake County Forest Preserve to sell 52 acres of land to the airport. The airport claims the project is necessary to comply with current FAA safety regulations, but the community is concerned that the airport may not be providing a good faith explanation of the issue. Any assistance you could provide in getting us in touch with resources which could provide an independent assessment of the current safety compliance of the airport, the need for a new runway and the requirements for any new construction would be greatly appreciated.
posted by grahahw to Law & Government (8 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
You might contact Earth Justice to see if there is grounds for a legal case.
posted by coffeecat at 8:38 AM on August 14 [1 favorite]

The FAA runway length regulations are here and while they haven't been updated since 2005, the designation of Waukegan as an overflow airport for O'Hare seems rmaterial.
posted by mhoye at 9:09 AM on August 14

resources which could provide an independent assessment of the current safety compliance of the airport, the need for a new runway and the requirements for any new construction would be greatly appreciated.

If you have the resources to pay for the work and want independent research and conclusions, this is something any number of envronmental/engineering consulting companies can do. If you are looking for how to get it done for free, your best chances are probably an NGO, as suggested above. Additionally, federal agencies can sometimes be very helpful in terms of providing explanations and copies of studies -- if you can reach someone helpful at the FAA, you may be able to get much of what you need directly from the source.

That said, in my extremely limited experience with the FAA, they are (understandably) very strict in their rules and interpretations of regulations, without much flexibility. YMMV, of course.
posted by Dip Flash at 9:30 AM on August 14

Once you've gathered some knowledge here, you might also post in the forum, where extremely knowledgeable folks are. Of course they are more on the side of flying and airports, but some might be able to help you get resources to fight it.
posted by intermod at 9:33 AM on August 14

I am an environmental consultant; I am not your consultant nor am I involved in this project.

The airport expansion will have to undergo a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review, since it is funded and/or permitted by a federal agency. As part of that process, the lead federal agency (likely FAA) will probably issue an environmental document (EIS or EA), which will thoroughly outline the project purpose and need, as well as impacts. There is a small chance it could be approved under a categorical exclusion and no document will be published for public comment, but that seems unlikely given what I read on a quick google search.

The comment above is correct - there are plenty of companies and people like me who do this for a living; to get assistance you will need to work with an NGO or legal firm to get someone on board to dive into this, and it won't be inexpensive.
posted by tryniti at 11:08 AM on August 14 [3 favorites]

I don't think the answer to your question is really going to be found in perusing the arcana of federal airport regulations. There might be a tiny bit of flex here and there, but in the main they aren't just going to bald-faced lie about what a new, 7000 ft long runway is going to require.

(You might be able to get them to give a bit around the edges here - and if it comes to that of course you should try it. Maybe they could take only 45 acres of the preserve instead of 52. Maybe the bulk of it could continue to act as a nature preserve, not open to the public of course, but usable by wildlife etc and only containing a few lights or radio installations or whatever here and there. Maybe they can trade this 52 acres of nature preserve with a different 52 acres located somewhere nearby. And if it comes down to that as your only choice of course you should try to negotiate those things.)

But: Where they're pulling the wool over your eyes is in the things they have managed to already get you to accept as a given so that you don't even question them.

- The new FAA requirements are almost certainly tied to the fact that they want a new runway 1000 feet longer than the existing runway. Almost certainly, they can keep a runway of the current length and of the current configuration running indefinitely. It met FAA regulations when it was built and it's almost certainly grandfathered in to continue running in that way as long as it's not changed (and certainly, to the point that any changes they'd be required to make would be things that fit into the land they already own).

So they are making a CHOICE to install a new, longer runway. They WANT to do this. No one is FORCING them to do this.

This is the choice that the airport authority is making for you, and trying to hide, and that the public really should be involved in: Is the tradeoff in giving up those 34 residences, 6 businesses, 52 acres of forest preserve, etc etc etc., worth it in order to obtain the benefits the new 1000 foot longer runway will bring the community?

- Option B is for them to retain the existing 6000 foot runway configuration and just upgrade/reconstruct within the footprint they already have. This won't require any more land or taking any residences, businesses, or forest preserver land. Almost certainly, they can do this - and perhaps even make a few incremental improvements like moving the taxiway a bit further from the runway - because this design and configuration was already approved when the runway was originally built. They can just re-surface or even rebuild the runway where it is without triggering any new FAA regulations (again - this is almost certainly true; I haven't taken the time to completely research it. But if it were not true every airport would eventually have to shut down as new FAA regulations are introduced and we just don't see that happening in the real world).

They even mention this as a possibility in their FAQ & fact sheet. However, they immediately dismiss this as an unrealistic option because "Without the new runway replacement project, the airport would be closed for 3 years to reconstruct the existing runway, significantly reducing its economic contributions to the region."

Ok, so: This is exactly where the B.S. just hit the fan in a massive way.

This is a perfectly viable option but it is not the option they WANT and so they are presenting it to the public as a fait accompli that the more ambitious option (that they want) absolutely must be built, and that the other option is just completely unrealistic and impossible.

First off, they are probably not completely lying about the "rebuild in place" option. They are just taking the absolutely most inept and boneheaded way of reconstructing the current airport - an option that no one in real life would ever actually take - and presenting it to the public as the only possible way this could be done. Therefore the "rebuild in place" option is impossible and we must move ahead with our much more ambitious plan! See how that works!

So they are (likely) not completely lying here - they are just massively stretching the truth in their preferred direction.

In fact, there are a variety of ways of reconstructing runways, taxiways, etc, right where they lie and without closing the airport - or at worst, with a few temporary closures of a few hours to a few days rather than the advertised absolutely complete closure for years. They can transfer the runway to the parallel taxiway while they reconstruct the runway. They can construct the runway bit by bit overnight or with, say, one-day-a-week closures (sounds crazy but this is absolutely standard procedure in airports across the world) rather than closing it completely for years.

Here are a bunch of examples showing how runways can be and often (always?) are rebuilt and reconstructed without shutting them down at all (or only for short periods, like overnight): 1 2 3 4 5 6

These are examples I found in literally 5 minutes searching online. This stuff is (literally) not rocket science. The fact that they are not presenting you with these types of options says a lot about their motivation.

- Option C is for them to move to a completely new location. This airport is completely boxed in at this point by urban development. And now they want to expand it even more - partly, one guesses, because they see the handwriting on the wall: If they don't expand now it's only going to become even harder in the future.

But the question for the community is this: Is this location, now (almost) completely surrounded by housing developments and businesses, the location where the community really wants its regional airport? And, in fact, a bigger/more land-hungry airport than the one it already has?

Or would it make more sense - at a time when they are already planning to spend massive bucketloads of money making a major expansion to the airport - to move it completely to a location that is better for both the community and the airport?

If you go just a few miles outside the populated area, there are tons of locations that present the opportunity for a 7000ft or even longer runway that would displace maybe one residence and business (usually a farm and farmhouse) and that would locate the noise and danger associated with the low-flying aircraft around the airport a long, safe distance from heavily populated areas.

Also: The current location of the airport is now mostly surrounded by developed areas. This raises a very important question: At this point in the development of the region, is a giant sprawling airport the best use of that land? If the airport were to relocate, what other uses could that area be put to, and would those be higher/better/more productive uses than the airport is?

Now maybe relocating the airport is a good idea and maybe it isn't. Maybe it is cost-effective and maybe it isn't. Maybe a giant sprawling airfield really is the best possible use for this land and maybe it isn't.

But the point is: This is the type of decision the full community should really be engaged in. And if you're really looking at the alternatives, it's not "Expansion in place is the only realistic option there is!!11!!!" but rather "Option A Expand at current location; Option B Remain in current location without expansion; Option C Move to a new location that allows for desired expansion: What are the benefits and drawbacks of each of these options, what are the costs? How does each benefit and impact the community as a whole not just the airport and the airport authority."

The airport authority has already made this decision for you and doesn't even want to talk about Options B & C. Which very well might be far more attractive to the community as a whole.

Personally if I were living in a place like that, my own attitude would be that if they want a bigger fancier airport then they need to move out of populated areas and out to some places that have the kind of space they really need. If they want to stay where they are - which is now in an urbanized area - then they need to stay in the (VERY LARGE!) footprint they are already using and not expand it at all. If they want to stay where they are then they need to make that work. Exactly how they do that is their problem and not yours.

The solution there is not found in the arcana of FAA regulations but rather in what the community's priorities for that area, and for the regional airport, are. The real choices here, and the real options, are being completely obfuscated as they try to ramrod a pre-determined conclusion down the community's throat.

Good luck!
posted by flug at 9:03 PM on August 15 [4 favorites]

I agree with everything Flug is pointing out about the way the options are being presented.

My only quibble is the assumption that it would be “easy” to build a new airport elsewhere - possible, sure, but even assembling an adequate land package could take years and that’s all without breaking ground or getting approvals. (Easy enough to convert an airport into a park… perhaps by sending in bulldozers, ala Daley, but much harder to do the reverse…)

As for the nature preservation, OP might want to contact the Trust for Public Land, OpenLands and/or The Nature Conservancy, all of which operate in the region.
posted by ec2y at 5:14 AM on August 22

Response by poster: thanks for all your comments. A new location is not a viable option. The Kenosha Regional Airport is less than 10 minutes north on US 94, has a 6600 ft runway and owns land to extend the runway. We suspect Waukegan is afraid of losing corporate customers to Kenosha.
posted by grahahw at 9:56 AM on September 17

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