St. Pete campus wants to close airstrip

Students and employees at the USF St. Petersburg campus are used to planes buzzing overhead on their way to the adjacent Albert Whitted Municipal Airport.

That will no longer be the case if a proposal endorsed by campus officials and St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker is adopted. The main change recommended by the proposal, the shutdown of the east-west runway at Albert Whitted, would allow the campus to construct multi-storey buildings.

Also, according to St. Pete campus interim vice president Ralph Wilcox, the shutdown could also significantly enhance safety.

“My biggest concern is one of safety and ensuring the safety of our nearly 5,000 students, faculty and staff on this campus,” Wilcox said. “And frankly, as I indicated to our City Council last Thursday evening, regrettably, it’s probably only a matter of time before there is a tragic accident with a plane either not landing on the runway or landing short, or losing power upon takeoff. That concerns me greatly.”

The airport accommodates small planes on two runways, one running north-south and another running east-west. Planes approaching or taking off from the east-west runway pass right next to the USF campus, so the university is not allowed to construct multi-storey buildings, in keeping with Federal Aviation Administration regulations.

Wilcox said the situation must change if the campus is to meet its expansion goals. For example, he cited a planned 104,000-square foot environmental and marine science complex that could only be erected in the current flight path, as well as a parking structure that would be multi-storey.

“We are a landlocked campus of 46 acres,” Wilcox said. “Our enrollment is expected to more than double in the next five years, and that means the need for additional classroom space, additional research labs, additional offices, additional space for student academic support, computer labs, advising space, that sort of thing.

“And we also have in our plans Phase I of student housing on our campus,” Wilcox said.

Baker’s proposal was a compromise between those who want the east-west runway to be extended into the waterfront and others who want the airport to be shut down altogether and put the land to different uses. Some pilots and City Council members have argued that shutting down the east-west runway might force the airport to forfeit federal funding and could decrease wind coverage, which is a measure of how safe it is for a plane to take off or land.

But according to Joe Zeoli, director of waterfront enterprises for St. Petersburg, the city government is still in fact-finding mode, and the potential decrease in wind coverage and loss of funding are still undetermined.

Wilcox said he understands that small-aircraft pilots use Albert Whitted for the convenience, but he wishes they would utilize the larger St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport, which is a few miles to the north.

“I can’t think for the life of me why more and more air traffic doesn’t move there,” Wilcox said.

Wilcox took his concerns to a City Council hearing Thursday, where he reiterated his concerns about safety and desire to see the campus expand.

“Every great city has a great university, and so I encourage you to provide USF St. Petersburg the opportunity to grow into a safe and great university on its current campus in downtown St. Petersburg,” Wilcox told the gathering Thursday.

Though a meeting with Baker scheduled for this afternoon was canceled because of a time conflict, Wilcox will meet with USF President Judy Genshaft this morning to discuss the airport issue and other matters.

Wilcox said Genshaft agrees in principle with the expansion of the St. Pete campus.

“She’s absolutely in agreement with the direction we’re moving,” he said.