The Audacity of Moving Infrastructure

Resisting change climbs to entirely new heights when cities discuss moving key pieces of their transport networks, such as Heathrow Airport.  Everyone understands the issues – the airport operates at nearly its full capacity, neighbors are bothered by noise from 4:30am to 11:30pm, and there is no room for expansion to keep up with challengers from the south and east (i.e. Paris, Frankfurt, and Amsterdam).


Heathrow has a total of 480,000 available flights per year on its two runways. At full capacity, it generates 44 departures and 43 arrivals per hour.  It handles the largest number of international passengers in the world, with a total 33 million passengers per year travelling to 187 destinations.  Four airlines operate 48% of the landing/takeoff slots: British Airways (41%), Virgin, American, and United.  Airlines compete fiercely for the remaining slots.


Expansion is necessary.  But building a third runway at Heathrow would eliminate the village of Sipson, all 700 houses, a church, a cemetery, eight Grade 1 listed buildings (and possibly result in 4,000 more homes abandoned due to noise).  And the existing airport has other problems.  “Nowhere in Europe are so many flights delayed, nowhere do so many bags get lost, at no other capital city airport do disasters afflict the infrastructure and operational flows as often. Originally designed for only 45 million passengers yet having seen almost 68 million people forced through its four terminals in 2007, London’s main airport regularly tops the polls when it comes to passenger nominations of the most unpopular airport in the world.” (Andreas Spaeth, FlugRevue 12/2008)


A third runway would reduce scheduling disruptions, and allow planes to land and takeoff with less wasted fuel and lower emissions.  The carbon cost for constructing the runway is £2.8bn… if completed now.  Weighed against the economic benefits to the UK, an estimated £30 billion over the period 2020-2080, the rationale for a third runway seems unassailable.  Instead, the expansion was cancelled in May 2010, in response to protests from neighbors over noise, and a flurry of options for building a new transport hub.


The first, and most compelling, is a proposal by Foster and Partners for Thames Hub.  Not just an airport, but a spine of energy, data, and communication running the length of the UK, it also incorporates a tidal energy barrage and flood protection barrier.  Economic partners mildly suggest that it will provide £150,000 billion in benefits, in the form of increased tax revenues, growth to the container shipping, construction, and growth in the area of the new airport, as well as the 2,500 acres of Heathrow to be available for development.


The benefits of infrastructure construction are well known: a 2012 study of results in the U.S. by the College of William and Mary found that over a 20-year period, public investment generates $3.21 of economic activity, which yields $0.96 in tax revenues.  In the shorter term, a dollar spent on infrastructure produces roughly double the initial spending on economic output.


But there are other costs to consider.  If the Thames Hub proposed for the Isle of Grain is built, the population of 1731 souls will relocate. The marshlands that currently provide an effective filter for downstream pollution as well as storm surge, will be affected. The biggest environmental hazard may be to birds, as an estimated 300,000 breed along the proposed flight paths, including protected species.


Questions remain.  Would the new flight paths actually reduce noise and air pollution?  The majority of the noise would occur over water, instead of in 2-minute intervals above populated areas. With more runways, landing and takeoff will be more resilient to delays, requiring less circling in the air, and shorter lines in the taxi queue.  But under the new site proposal, not just the four other greater London airports would affect the new flight patterns, but Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport may force planes into more circuitous paths.  Richard Deakin, the head of National Air Traffic Services, commented on the Thames Hub proposal: “The very worst spot you could put an airport is just about here… We’re a little surprised that none of the architects thought it worthwhile to have a little chat” with air traffic controllers. (Gwyn Topham, The Guardian, 13 April 2013)


Creating new transport links would necessarily disrupt development for years, and expand neighborhoods into previously greenfield sites along the eastern spine leading to the hub.  And yet, new housing is desperately needed, with links to the capital and beyond.  The new infrastructure needed for the airport will perform double duties.  In addition, the converted brownfield lands of Heathrow are already well-served by transport, data, and energy networks.


The biggest obstacle to the estuary airport construction may be the wreck of the SS Richard Montgomery, an American Liberty ship, which ran aground in 1944 in 15m of water near the Isle of Sheppey with 1,400 tones of explosives on board (including blockbuster, fragmentation bombs, etc).  Its 3 masts are visible above the water, a potent reminder of the fragility of transport systems, and the volatility of change.