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For years, city and state residents and officials have debated whether or not to expand Tweed-New Haven Regional Airport. But despite numerous pleas from local city government, no substantial progress has been made on the issue due to state and local laws that prevent the expansion of the airport’s runway from 5,600 feet.

In January, Mayor Toni Harp unilaterally terminated New Haven’s 2009 Memorandum of Agreement with East Haven, which limited the runway length, arguing that the restriction was illegal. And last month, the Connecticut General Assembly’s Transportation Committee passed a bill that would end the state’s legal restriction on Tweed’s runway length. Still, the bill needs to be approved by the full Connecticut House of Representatives and Connecticut Senate and signed by Gov. Ned Lamont SOM ’80 to become law. According to state Senate President Pro Tempore Martin Looney, D-New Haven, the chances that the bill will make it into law this legislative session — which closes in just over a month — are slim.

“A viable commercial airport at Tweed would serve the economic development interests of the entire New Haven region,” said mayoral spokesman Laurence Grotheer. “It would be a great convenience to hundreds of thousands of Connecticut residents.”

Tweed borders the Morris Cove neighborhood on New Haven’s East Shore — a neighborhood whose residents include Looney himself. Looney’s house is located less than a five-minute drive from the airport. According to Looney, residents in the neighborhood are concerned about diminishing property values due to impacts of the proposed expansion — including increased traffic, pollution and noise.

“There is a potential economic benefit to expanded use of Tweed, but at the same time that can’t come at the expense of what is frankly, one of the most viable residential neighborhoods in the city of New Haven,” Looney said, citing the neighborhood’s high levels of homeownership and taxation.

Looney said a “necessary precursor” for him to support any legislation that would repeal the statute restricting Tweed’s runway length is the development of a “community benefits plan.” According to Looney, the plan would address soundproofing, noise concerns and traffic reconfiguration, as well as mitigate the environmental impact of the changes to Tweed.

“There’s a number of environmental advocates in the neighborhood who are raising issues about what the environmental impact of airport development would be given the predictions of rising sea levels over the next 20 years, concerns about wetlands [and] concerns about flooding,” Looney said. “All of that would have to be addressed in any plan.”

Expansion proponents note that New Haven is one of the most underserved air travel markets in the nation and that a longer runway will open the door to flights to major cities. Currently, Tweed only offers daily service to Philadelphia and once-a-week service to Charlotte, N.C. According to a Yale press release supporting Tweed’s expansion, expanding the runway would add 1,000 jobs in the region, generate $122 million in revenue and increase the state and local tax base by $4.5 million.

According to Kevin Rocco, the chief executive officer of BioRez, Inc. — a medical device start-up in the city — the stalled progress on Tweed enhancements has come at the expense of efficiency and growth for businesses in the region.

“Access to convenient transportation is really critical for growth,” Rocco said. “There’s a lot of companies that have left the area and they’ve admitted, on record, that a big part of that is lack of an airport. So why are our politicians not doing everything they can to make sure this happens?”

Local publications tend to overestimate the public’s opposition to the airport expansion, according to Rocco. In his experience, Rocco said, the vast majority of community members support the plan and only a small but vocal minority oppose the move.

In an interview with the News, Grotheer pointed out that the FAA is in the process of implementing a noise mitigation program to benefit residents who live near Tweed. The program includes sound insulation treatments such as window, door and ventilation upgrades. According to Looney, however, only 45 of the 180 houses in the area have received benefits.

The University and Yale-New Haven Hospital have been two of the most vocal proponents of Tweed expansion. As a result, Looney said Lamont plans to approach the University about making financial commitments to the community benefits plan.

The Tweed expansion plan has another powerful proponent — Connecticut’s governor. Lamont first backed the plan on the campaign trail in May 2018, when he received Harp’s endorsement in the Democratic primary.

Now, the Tweed proposal is a key part of Lamont’s infrastructure improvement plan to help boost Connecticut’s economy. In his budget address on Feb. 20, Lamont called for “an upgraded Tweed Airport” but also noted the importance of “working with the community to make sure it benefits everyone.”

“The responsibility is going to be with [Lamont] to help move a plan forward with a commitment of state resources and broad-based inclusion of community input, because the city’s had an opportunity to do so for several years and has not,” Looney said.

Airport authorities have already communicated with airline carriers such as Allegiant Air about the possibility of adding flights contingent upon the runway expansion, according to the New Haven Independent. Even if the bill to repeal the statute limiting the runway’s length is passed, Tweed would still need to undergo an environmental assessment and receive approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to increase its runway length.

But the legislative opposition to Tweed’s expansion may not spell doom for the project. The state statute could be nullified pending a litigation verdict. In 2015, the Tweed Airport Authority filed a lawsuit that asserted that the state’s statute preventing runway expansion was invalid and violated the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution. The U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut ruled against Tweed in 2017, arguing that the state was legally permitted to enact and execute the statute. But Tweed appealed the ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, which heard oral arguments in December and has yet to issue a verdict.

Earlier this year, the Connecticut Airport Authority — which operates Bradley International Airport in Hartford, Connecticut’s only other commercial service airport — agreed to form a “working committee” to look into acquiring or entering into an agreement with Tweed to reduce competition between the two airports, according to the New Haven Register.

Nathalie Bussemaker | nathalie.bussemaker@yale.edu

Siddarth Shankar | siddarth.shankar@yale.edu