Will Teterboro Survive?
Some airports are located in areas that have marginal protection against water level rise. A prime example is KTEB, which lies in a tidal estuary and its critical equipment sits just 3 to 8 ft. above sea level. Over the next 20 to 30 years the airport will slowly start to lose its battle with sea level rise (SLR). The Regional Planning Association (RPA), a 90-year-old urban research and advocacy organization, believes the cost of maintaining the airport, both financially and environmentally, will be increasingly hard to justify with SLR, and should eventually result in closing the airport.
Ironically it was the RPA which in the 1960s recommended that the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PANYNJ) shift all non-commercial traffic out of the big three airports to make room for commercial air-carrier growth. In 2016, KTEB served over 167,000 aircraft. The loss of the airport could unravel many of the benefits that have occurred over its existence, putting even more pressure on the region’s three commercial airports.
Protecting the airport alone would only worsen conditions in surrounding communities by displacing flood waters. The RPA’s report points out that the problem of continuing SLR will force urban planning, public infrastructure managers and public safety officials to make difficult decisions about what can be protected and what should be phased out. Given the significant amount of population and employment centers in the Meadowlands, and the critical energy, wastewater treatment, road and rail infrastructure passing through, it could be difficult to justify significant investments in elevating or walling off the 827-acre airport and its connecting roadways. Though the RPA has influence over public works, economic development and open-space projects in the New York area, its recommendations are not always followed.
The Port Authority and other stakeholders are considering alternatives for protection from storm surge and precipitation flooding of the surrounding boroughs and KTEB by implementing the Rebuild by Design-Meadowlands Project. Currently, $150 million in federal funding has been awarded toward the design and construction of a flooding risk reduction strategy. An Environmental Impact Study is underway that considers three alternatives. Option No. 1 is structural flood reduction through the use of levees, berms, barriers, drainage structures, pump stations and flood gates. Option No. 2 is storm-water drainage improvement through drainage ditches, pipes, pump stations, roadway elevations, green infrastructure, water storage areas, water control structures, cleaning and de-snagging of waterways, and increasing public open space. Option No. 3 is an integrated hybrid of both. All three alternatives focus primarily on flooding from surge and precipitation versus permanent flooding from SLR.
The Port Authority's plans also include a proposal to expand the facilities at KTEB. In a joint application with Signature Flight Support, PANYNJ plans to add three hangars, each of which would be at least 40,000 sq. ft. To do so, the plan calls for 100,000 cu. yd. of fill to be packed into 11 acres of wetlands. This may sound inconsequential to aviators, but civil engineers utilize wetlands as critical components of flood protection, especially to lower storm surges as they propagate inland.
Residents and local officials have already objected to the plan, citing severe flooding in towns like Little Ferry, South Hackensack, Moonachie and Teterboro itself. The project would eliminate swaths of wetlands, which act as a natural sponge for rainwater. In a letter to the Army Corps of Engineers, which will make the final decision on the project, the Environmental Protection Agency said the plan would have an "unacceptable impact" on the Meadowlands region.
Those who propose the eventual closing of KTEB cite many reasons in addition to the costs and difficulty of protecting the airport against SLR. Its proximity to Newark Liberty creates an airspace problem due to the different runway orientations at the two airports. This would be corrected if Teterboro was decommissioned. Its closing would free up airspace around KEWR, which would improve that airport’s reliability and flexibility. KTEB’s closure would mean a reduction of noise that inflicts the dense communities around it.
If Teterboro is phased out over time because of SLR, its business flights would need to be accommodated by other airfields in the region. Proximity to New York’s central business district is highly valued by business jet passengers and the only close-in airfields are the three major commercial airports. Finding a suitable replacement to KTEB will not be easy. A new business jetport would need to be within a 45-min. drive to Manhattan.
Would facilities at Morristown, Republic and Westchester County airports be able to absorb portions of KTEB’s traffic? Almost all of Teterboro’s operations are itinerant flights that originate from other airports. The airport can handle, and does at certain times of the day, 64 operations per hour on its two runways. Also, over 70% of the aircraft that operate out of the airport are higher-performing private jets that require longer runways for takeoffs. The RPA’s 2011 review of the outlying and general aviation airports found there is no equivalent facility that can alone absorb KTEB’s 167,000 annual aircraft operations. Many of the larger private business jets will search for closer-in airfields with better access to Manhattan. The RPA’s report believes the two obvious places will be LaGuardia and Newark Liberty due to their highway connections and close proximity to the central business district. From an aviation standpoint, those of us who have dropped off and picked up business passengers at KLGA know that the ramp conditions are severely limited in terms of space and proximity to the FBO. The inconvenience of needing a van ride from the GA parking to the FBO places a premium on a flight crew’s time and planning. KJFK’s distance and congested highways will make it a distant third choice. These are unsuitable options for business aviation in which time and access to the financial district are paramount.
Most in our industry would like to think that hauling enough dirt and rocks will solve this problem. Unfortunately it won’t be that simple, and nearby residents and businesses that would suffer additional flooding will vigorously exercise their rights to protect their properties and livelihoods. There will be no easy answers and certainly no cheap alternatives.
Editor's Note: A related article about rising sea levels impact on airports appears here.