Residents and county officials gathered on Tuesday evening to express their opposition to a pair of plans regarding the Westchester County Airport, plans they feel have lacked input from the public.
“If it ain’t broke don’t fix it, clean and simple,” said Martin Rogowsky, a former county legislator and representative of the Purchase Environmental Protective Association, one of the groups that sponsored the event. Other local and grassroots organizations behind the forum included Citizens for a Responsible County Airport, Federated Conservationists of Westchester County, Grassroots Environmental Education, Sierra Club Lower Hudson Group and Westchester for Change.
During a panel discussion at the Ethical Culture Society of Westchester in White Plains, participants criticized the county’s plan to enter into a long-term lease with a private operator of the airport and a draft master plan released earlier this year regarding the airport’s future.
“Westchester has already spent millions of dollars on a master plan which made clear that the largest potential revenue generators, like lifting the passenger cap and adding even more gate and garage space, would be one of the only ways to attract bidders,” said Westchester County Legislator Catherine Parker, a Rye Democrat. “These ideas are exactly what has neighboring residents so concerned.”
Developed by aviation consulting firm DY Consultants, the master plan calls for a $462 million investment in a number of airport projects to be completed in a series of phases over the next 15 years. Those projects include the development of a new U.S. Customs building, additional parking areas and the construction of a jet hangar.
The county paid DY Consultants $1.4 million to craft the master plan, which has been in the works since 2013. The last airport master plan dates to 1987.
“We are taking the cart before the horse,” Parker said. “We need much more public input, especially on the master plan first, before we even start considering any proposal for privatization.”
The unveiling of the master plan followed Westchester County Executive Robert Astorino’s announcement of a $140 million, 40-year revenue-sharing lease with California-based Oaktree Capital Management in November.
Some members of the county Board of Legislators balked at the administration’s plan, criticizing the lack of a competitive bid process and calling the deal a gimmick to balance an unbalanced budget. The full lease agreement proposal was sent to the board just days before Astorino was set to deliver the 2017 budget, one that included $15 million in revenue from the airport deal.
In April, legislators issued a request for proposals from potential private operators of the airport. The county received proposals from three bidders: FerroStar Westchester Airport Partners, a partnership between New York-based infrastructure company Star America Infrastructure Partners and a Spanish conglomerate, Ferrovial Airports; New York City-based infrastructure company Macquarie Infrastructure Corp.; and HPN Aviation Group, a partnership between Oaktree and another California company, Conor Capital.
A task force made up of three members of the county executive’s staff and three members of board of legislators is evaluating these proposals, said Larry Belinsky, managing partner of Frasca & Associates, a New York City-based transportation-consulting firm that is assisting in the RFP process.
The task force will evaluate the three bidders and send its recommendations to the county executive, who will decide which company to refer to the county legislature for its approval.
“That is the time for the discussion to begin,” Belinsky said. “It would have been premature to discuss it any sooner, because you don’t know who the winning proposer will be and what they are recommending.”
If the board ultimately approves the lease, any winning proposal would still need approval from the Federal Aviation Administration.
“Privatization would create a powerful incentive for expansion while reducing oversight and eliminating policy options for the next forty years,” said Jonathan Wang, chairman of Citizens for a Responsible County Airport. “We will get minimal benefits from these changes, like planning a budget for one year, but we would pay the cost of increased noise, traffic, air and water pollution for forty years.”
The proposed public-private partnership is a product of a Federal Aviation Administration program that would allow money paid to the county by a private operator to be used for all county programs. Until now, any revenue generated by the airport could only be used at the airport.
Rogowsky said that instead of employing the FAA program, the county should focus on attempting to change federal law to allow the county to use those funds outside the airport.
“Let’s look for a way to get that money, and going to Congress is the obvious answer,” he said.