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Expand the danger?

St. Petersburg officials need to step in to block a rigged process that would lead to a dangerous expansion of downtown's Albert Whitted Airport.

An airport consultant, paid $157,000 by the people who run Albert Whitted Airport in downtown St. Petersburg, is sketching plans to expand the facility, and we've been down this runway before.

Look at the familiar markings:

1. The consultant, LPA Group of Orlando, is paid with airport-related money and answers to the airport director, M.O. Burgess.

2. Fifteen of the 20 members on a "technical advisory committee" overseeing the project have direct ties to the airport.

3. The consultant's preliminary report includes drawings of a 1,720-foot extension to the east-west runway, the one that lands directly in the path of the University of South Florida's St. Petersburg campus.

Isn't it time to ground this flight?

Burgess says he is only trying to "update the airport master plan," and that any prudent business operator would do so. Maybe so, but it is hardly surprising that the few private pilots and businesses that benefit from the 117 acres of prime, publicly owned waterfront land are eager to expand their domain. But the airport does belong to the public, not to the few who profit from it, and it sits on prime waterfront land. So decisions about its future must be viewed through a much wider lens.

That broader view should begin with the acknowledgement that the airport is misplaced. The small planes that take off and land there barely miss buildings on the growing USF campus and homes in surrounding neighborhoods, and the dangers are not imaginary ones. In 1996, a pilot splashed down into Tampa Bay less than 100 yards from The Pier. In 1995, a pilot and passenger were killed when a plane crashed into a vacant house about a mile from the airport. In 1987, three people were killed when a plane dropped into Tampa Bay less than 400 yards from shore.

As recently as the mid-1980s, the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce and a former city manager recommended closing the east-west runway. They argued that the runway was too dangerous and that its land could be freed for better use. But airport supporters banded together to protect their territory, and they have persuaded city councils over the past two decades to keep the airport and both its runways open.

One needs no stake in that larger political debate about the airport's viability to appreciate why this latest consultant's report is so egregiously out of touch. To even begin to expand the runway, the city would have to dump mountains of dirt into Tampa Bay, an estuary that has federal protection and that surrounding communities have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to clean up. Such an extension would also allow larger, and potentially more menacing, planes to buzz over the heads of students at USF.

There has never been any question that the people who run the airport and who fly their planes into it want to expand it. But this is not a private pilots' club, and Mayor David Fischer needs to put an end to this costly exercise. If the city wants to spend money on consultants, let it hire an urban planner who can assess the worth of a precarious downtown landing strip, located but 9 miles from the county airport.