Despite strong vocal opposition from residents and environmental activists, Broward County, Fla., commissioners decided June 5 to move forward with plans for a $694-million expansion of the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport — considered by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) as one of the fastest-growing airports in the country.

Commissioners voted 6-3 in favor of lengthening runway 9R/27L to 8,000 ft, after listening to citizens at a standing-room only public meeting in a packed 1,200-seat convention center ballroom. Those opposed have voiced concerns related to noise, quality of life, home devaluation and environmental impacts, which the FAA deems minimal. Supporters cite benefits to business, especially the hospitality industry.

The expansion would allow the airport to maintain annual aircraft delays below six to 10 minutes. In addition to the extended runway, elevated over Florida East Coast Railway track and U.S. Highway 1, the plan adds a 75-ft wide, full-length parallel taxiway and an outer dual parallel taxiway, eliminates a crosswind runway, and redevelops terminal gates.

The plan requires closing an airport perimeter road; acquiring all or a portion of the a local hotel, which sits in the runway protection zone; displacing a Gulfstream International Airlines maintenance facility; and partially displacing Jet Center facilities. The airport also will have to mitigate the loss of wetlands and provide noise relief for 1,051 homes.

The comment period for the FAA’s draft Environmental Impact Study closed May 21. FAA spokesperson Kathleen Bergen says the agency will address issues raised and release a final study, with an FAA preferred plan, early next year. A Record Of Decision will follow 30 days later, at which time the airport expansion could be eligible for federal funding. If the FAA’s preferred plan does not match the one commissioners picked, Broward could still move forward with its plan if it mitigates environmental impacts, Bergen says.

San Francisco-based URS Corp. serves as program manager for the airport expansion program, but the contract does not include the runway extension, says Todd McClendon, a URS senior project manager. Landrum & Brown, Cincinnati, consulted on the runway plan, and Jacobs Engineering Group, Pasadena, Calif., is working on a master plan for the terminal layout. The airport expansion has been in the works for more than a decade, says Greg Meyer, airport spokesperson. About 21 million passengers use the airport annually. In 2004, the FAA identified Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood as one of the busiest airports in the United States and indicated that it would need additional capacity by 2013. The FAA estimated average delays would jump from six minutes in 2005 to 26 minutes in 2020 unless the airport grew.

Carolyn Michaels, interim president of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Chamber of Commerce, says the expansion is needed to spur economic development. The chamber voted to support a larger airport three years ago. Michaels says that crowded conditions already exist at the airport, and airlines have eliminated routes because of that. Even so, she expects the plan could be delayed for years if opponents pursue legal challenges.

Broward County reached out to its citizens to keep everyone apprised of its plans and progress. Last year, it opened an outreach center, staffed nine hours daily. The outreach specialist communicated with neighboring communities through newsletters and Web postings. “We did not take a position pro or con,” Meyer says. “The nine county commissioners determine the direction of the airport, not staff.” Meyer says commissioners have already announced the county will not take any homes through eminent domain. It will sound insulate or possibly purchase houses affected by the plan.