Officials consider new airport

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ATHENS, Ga. - Sparked by Atlanta's need for a second airport, business and government leaders are reviving a long-dormant commission to try to bring a regional airport to northeast Georgia - and Barrow County is the early favorite.

Surviving members of the Northeast Georgia Surface and Air Transportation Commission, created by the state Legislature in 1989, will hold their first meeting in 15 years Aug. 23 and ask officials from 13 counties and eight cities to appoint new members. The reconstituted group will then seek state and federal funds for studies and scout out sites for a 20- or 24-gate airport that could offer flights to 20 to 40 cities and draw passengers from the north Atlanta suburbs to the South Carolina line.

As it did in the early 1990s, advocates of a regional airport will face a tough task convincing skeptical politicians, under pressure from voters who fear noise and traffic, that building such an airport is a good idea.

A 10,000-acre tract off Interstate 85 in Jackson County was one of three sites the original transportation commission touted, along with 10,000 acres Atlanta owns in Dawson County and an expansion of Gwinnett County's Briscoe Field.

"I must have gotten 500 letters" opposing the airport, said Jim Dove, the director of the Northeast Georgia Regional Development Center.

One of the opponents was Jackson County Commission Chairman Pat Bell, who fought efforts to bring an airport to the I-85 site before she was elected.

"We had a lot of citizens who opposed that airport," she said. "I believe in citizen input, and I'd have to listen to my folks on that." Barrow County Commission Chairman Doug Garrison said he is open to talks about expanding his county's airport, a 450-acre facility that will soon extend one of its two runways to 7,000 feet, long enough for medium-size jets to land and take off fully loaded. Barrow County officials have long pushed to make the former Winder-Barrow Airport the pre-eminent one in the area, even renaming it Northeast Georgia Regional Airport in 2005.

"The potential is there if the support is there," Mr. Garrison said.

Talk of a regional airport started up again after Delta Airlines exited bankruptcy recently and Atlanta received a $1 million federal grant to study an overflow airport for Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, one of the busiest in the country. So far, officials have mentioned Macon; Chattanooga, Tenn.; Dawson County, Ga.; and 10,000 acres Atlanta owns in Paulding County as potential sites. A call to Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin's office was not returned.

Each site has its drawbacks, according to University of Georgia economist Jeff Humphreys, who wrote a study in 1992 naming the I-85 corridor east of Atlanta as the best place for a second airport.

Chattanooga is 100 miles away from Atlanta, and many of the jobs and dollars associated with an airport would go to Tennessee if it's built there. Residential growth is quickly swallowing up land around the Paulding County site. The Dawson County site was dropped because the terrain is difficult to build on, according to E.H. Culpepper, the vice chairman of the transportation commission. And Macon is on the wrong side of Atlanta to serve the city's populous northern suburbs.

The original transportation commission stopped meeting in 1992 after the Federal Aviation Administration awarded Georgia a $1.8 million grant for a statewide feasibility study rather than one focused on northeast Georgia, Mr. Culpepper said. The second airport was never built because Hartsfield added a fifth runway and increased its capacity.

A sixth runway at Hartsfield is unlikely, so now is the time to start the 10- or 20-year process of planning and building a new airport, Mr. Humphreys said.


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