Town Topics

Airport Advances with New Terminal Plans, But Critics Continue to Press Objections

By Donald Gilpin
Town Topics

Most travelers who have flown out of Trenton-Mercer Airport recently would probably agree that upgraded facilities are needed, but Mercer County’s plans to build a new, larger terminal are meeting resistance and facing environmental, economic, and quality-of-life concerns.

The airport website notes that a new terminal has been a priority of the county in order to accommodate airport users and to meet future demand. Plans call for the 28,000-square-foot terminal, built in the 1970s, to be replaced with a new 125,000-square-foot facility located adjacent to the existing building, which is to be demolished. There is no plan for new or longer runways, and the size of the airport will remain unchanged, the website says.

“The scope of the project is replacing an outdated and undersized facility with an efficient modern terminal that offers amenities that travelers come to expect when utilizing a terminal facility,” Mercer County Director of Communications and Intergovernmental Affairs Theodore Siggelakis wrote in an email. “There will always be a small group of critics. Overwhelmingly the reception of these projects has been positive and welcomed by the Mercer community at large.”

Trenton Threatened Skies (TTS), an advocacy group of residents of Mercer County and Bucks County, Pa., disagrees, and has called for a more stringent environmental study to evaluate the airport plans, as well as greater transparency by the county in presenting the long-term financial, quality-of-life, and environmental impact of the project.

“Clearly people want a new terminal. The old terminal is outdated,” said a TTS member who is a Princeton resident and a physician but wished to remain anonymous. “They need to re-do the terminal, but does it need to be five times the size and have four boarding bridges? People say it’s convenient, it’s nearby, but this is going to be a bigger, more congested airport in many ways, and some of the things people like about it being easy-in, easy-out are no longer necessarily going to be the case.”

She continued, “People do not realize the scope of this. Everybody here is concerned about finance and air quality and health, and when people find out, ‘Oh my God, it’s going to be that big,’ people will be floored. We’ve been reading about how nice this is going to be, but people don’t realize that this is going to be massive and that it’s going to impact them.”

The essential issue for Judith Hoechner, a TTS member from Bucks County, is the question of communicating to the public clearly and thoroughly what they can expect. “One of our missions has always been to educate the people in the area and the taxpayers about the potential impact coming. We feel that the county and the airport are mischaracterizing this as a simple replacement and not an expansion.”

She continued, “We’ve always wanted an honest review of what size airport this area can handle, and they don’t want to ask that question. We want to continue to educate the area so they can speak up and raise their own concerns.”

Ewing resident Michael Schaffer, also a TTS member, said, “Many questions could easily be answered if they just did an environmental impact assessment. They’re trying to get out of doing that it seems. If they did an environmental impact study they could easily tell what kind of effect they’re having on the area and it could help them decide what kind of airport would fit here and the future impact it would have.”

Mercer County authorities contend that they have sufficiently addressed environmental regulations and concerns and will soon be ready to move ahead with groundbreaking for what is projected to be a 26-month long construction project. “In consultation with the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration], the terminal replacement project did not meet the requirements for a full EIS [environmental impact study],” said Siggelakis. “However, the environmental impact of the terminal project was studied at the appropriate level and the findings concluded that the County could move forward.”

In 2022 the FAA approved the county’s plan, which is supported with a county-commissioned Environmental Assessment (EA), but TTS challenged that approval in federal court, arguing that a more comprehensive EIS is needed. Last month the appeals court ruled that the 2022 FAA report was reasonable and rejected the appeal lodged by TTS along with the towns of Yardley Borough and Lower Makefield Township in Pa. and several residents of Mercer and Bucks counties.

Hoechner stated that TTS is currently appealing the January ruling. “We’re asking for a re-hearing,” she said. Hoechner and other TTS members claim that the county has “mischaracterized” the project in order to avoid undergoing more rigorous environmental impact standards.

“They’re saying it’s a replacement terminal and because they’re not adding a runway they’re not expanding capacity,” said the Princeton physician TTS member. “But the truth of the matter is that they’re expanding. They’re making the terminal so much bigger.”

She went on to discuss the threat to area residents’ health from increased jet emissions. The smaller, lighter particles travel further and are potentially more dangerous than larger heavier particles, she pointed out. “There’s a lot of environmental toxicology research coming out about how that matter travels and has an impact on people,” she said. “We have to consider the health costs as well as the economic costs. This new airport is not going to be the good news to the county that people say it is.”

Hoechner added that the lives of many people in Bucks County are directly impacted by the noise and vibrations of low-flying jets. “There’s a direct impact on quality of life,” she said. “There’s also concern about the Delaware River and drinking water because our water is sourced from there and there’s an issue about contamination on the airport construction site flowing into the river.”

TTS and Mercer County authorities also clash on the question of the financial burden of the project. The FAA has estimated $109 million to $121 million in costs, but Siggelakis states, “We are not yet at the point of sharing budgets as we work on finalizing funding.”

TTS predicts costs of about $200 million, which could impose a significant burden on taxpayers, but Mercer County Executive Dan Benson, as well as Siggelakis, see the airport project as “a significant economic engine for our entire region,” as quoted by nj.com.

Siggelakis described the project as one of the largest Mercer County public works projects in recent memory utilizing local skilled labor and providing thousands of work hours for Mercer residents. He also cited the future airport as a draw for businesses considering relocating to Mercer County and a “significant factor in the county’s appeal for economic development.” He also claimed that the influx of new passengers would “lead to increased patronage of local businesses.”