"I used to live right over there -- I could see my house from here."
Bridgeton Mayor Conrad Bowers is sitting behind his desk, pointing eastward through the picture window in his City Hall office. He can't see the site of his old house from this window any more; there's a massive mound of dirt in the way, dirt that has been bulldozed to form the base of Lambert International Airport's $1.1 billion new runway.
A runway that will one day have large jets roaring past about 200 yards from where Bowers is sitting.
Bowers and the city of Bridgeton have long labored to stop the runway project, a fight that has cost the city hundreds of thousands of dollars in attorneys' fees. Bridgeton's legal challenge failed in court last year. And now, after years of doing battle with Lambert executive director Leonard Griggs, Bowers is prepared to sell out. Literally: He wants Griggs to purchase Bridgeton City Hall.
"How can you have a city hall 800 feet from the center line of a runway?" the mayor asks. "Can you imagine trying to conduct business that close to a runway? I'd be ducking sometimes," he adds, lowering his head and covering it with his arm to demonstrate.
According to Bowers, the City Hall complex, which includes a police station, would cost about $5 million to replace. The complex, he says, was built in the early 1990s without any special sound insulation: "It was well out of the high-noise areas when it was planned."
What will it sound like inside City Hall once the runway is completed? "Pretty noisy," guesses Richard Schwartz, chairman of physics and astronomy at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Just how tolerable it might be depends on the building's sound insulation, adds the professor, who conducted noise studies on the effect of Lambert's flight pattern on the campus' new performing-arts center but did not study the runway's effect on Bridgeton City Hall.
Schwartz estimates that noise levels would peak at about 100 decibels right at the runway and diminish to about 90 decibels 600 feet away. With normal insulation, a drop of another 20 decibels is likely inside. Any noise level above 65 decibels drowns out conversation, Schwartz says.
"If you got 85- and 90-decibel events going by outside the building -- and you will -- then there may be times when it gets up to 65 and 70 decibels momentarily as the aircraft pass," says Schwartz, "unless the building is well insulated for sound."
Slated for completion in 2005, the runway project is designed to decrease delays during bad weather by allowing simultaneous takeoffs and landings. But opponents of the expansion maintain that the benefit will be marginal. To bolster their stand, they point to the continuing slowdown of air travel at Lambert, which began even before the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center.
Activity levels at the airport have indeed fallen far below projections that were made years ago to justify the expansion. In 2002, Lambert handled 437,117 takeoffs and landings, down nearly 8 percent from the previous year and almost 16 percent from 1995. Delays, once emphasized as a major factor, are improving: In 1996 Lambert was the sixth-worst airport for delays; last year, the airport ranked fifteenth-worst.
Juli Niemann, a stock-market analyst for RT Jones Capital Equities who follows the airline industry, never thought an additional runway was a remedy for what ailed Lambert Field.
"We've got a secular decline in large businesses in St. Louis. We have a growing number of small businesses," Niemann explains. "This is a recognition of what St. Louis truly is: We're not a Fortune 500 city any more. What we are is a nice medium-size Midwestern city that is becoming increasingly friendly to small and medium-size businesses. This means you don't need an O'Hare."
Nor is Niemann optimistic about the local future of Lambert's lifeblood, American Airlines. "TWA was semirescued by American, but American had absolutely no intention of making us a hub," she says. "They threw a couple of million dollars into monitors and carpeting. That's not a hub expansion. Billions went into Los Angeles -- that's the third hub. St. Louis is basically spillover."
The root cause of delays at Lambert, the analyst argues, is the concourse: "It's the terminal. We need terminal renovations. The problem is the configuration of the terminal; the solution is not an additional runway."
Lambert spokesman Michael Donatt is confident the airlines' downturn poses no threat to the runway expansion. The financing of the project was set up when TWA was facing bankruptcy, he notes, so it was designed to weather a 45 percent decline in flight operations. Even since 9/11, air travel hasn't seen that drastic a drop.
As for buying Bridgeton City Hall -- though Lambert officials were happy to purchase more than 1,900 local residences, many after having them condemned through eminent domain (including Mayor Bowers' own home) -- as far as airport spokesman Donatt is concerned, the mayor might want to work on polishing that duck-and-cover maneuver.
Donatt says he doesn't know whether City Hall is located within the area near Lambert that qualifies for noise-abatement funding.
"The city of Bridgeton was pretty emphatic about not having its City Hall included in the expansion plan," Donatt maintains. "Because of their opposition, and in light of the environmental-impact study that was done that showed that area did not have to be included, it wasn't included as part of the project."
"That's all bull," counters Bowers, who has been mayor for the past sixteen years. "It wasn't even talked about. Is he saying it would have made a difference? If we had said we wanted to be bought out, the airport would have bought us? I don't think so. These people are unreal. If they're going to complete this runway, we've got to move City Hall."