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MURPHY: Briscoe Field expansion winning public support

For generations, Gwinnett County has had a love-hate relationship with transportation. We love the idea of easily and quickly getting from Point A to B; we hate many of the solutions that could get us there.

Let's call it our version of "Planes, Trains and Automobiles."

Twice, MARTA was on the ballot -- 1971 and 1990 -- and, twice, Gwinnett County voters vociferously exclaimed, "Not here."

In the '80s, plans to expand the Briscoe Field airport hit a brick wall of disapproval.

So decades later, do residents still harbor paranoia over mass transit?

If you believe a recent poll concerning Gwinnett County's Briscoe Field, Gwinnettians have overcome their fear of flying.

Propeller Investments is a private company that would like to take over the airport, expand it to 10 gates and service smaller commercial flights. It commissioned an April poll to gauge public support for its proposal.

In this poll, 1,070 residents were asked:

Generally speaking, would you support or oppose the idea of allowing smaller discount carriers to operate commercial flights out of Briscoe airfield?

Seventy percent were in favor.

When it came to the question of privatization of the airport, support was even stronger, with 84.5 percent answering yes to the following:

Generally speaking, since the county airport doesn't make any money for the county, do you think that the county should sell the airport to a private operator and make it profitable for the county?

While the proposal is bandied about by many, government officials are steering clear of commitment until the public sentiment is more fully tested. The best we can get out of them now are generalized statements such as "It's an interesting idea," "Public input is needed" and "If it's good for the county, we should take a hard look at it."

In the end, it's a county commission decision. Officials can call for a public vote on the matter, but they don't need to. And a vote tally would likely be for information purposes only and not binding on the government decision-makers.

An expanded airport scares some. The thought of big jetliners lumbering across the Lawrenceville horizon can be intimidating. But before launching an anti-expansionist campaign, everyone needs to get a clear understanding of what lies ahead. From information available thus far, the plans seem reasonable in scope.

Brett Smith, managing director of Propeller, said, "By no means is this airport intended to ever be a 'second' Hartsfield-Jackson in any way shape or form. For example, on average during a normal business day, Hartsfield-Jackson accommodates 150 flights per hour. It is envisioned that Gwinnett County Airport would handle approximately four commercial flights per hour. Currently, the airport averages between 10 to 15 general aviation (private) flights per hour."

As described, the expansion would be a good fit for Gwinnett County, not too big, not too small. Flight times would be fewer than the big airports. There wouldn't be any 747s. Destination options would be limited.

But when schedules are worked out, you'd be in store for a much nicer trip for having avoided the hassles of Hartsfield.

Need more reasons for expansion? For the consumer, the thought of catching a commercial flight right here at home is pretty appealing. It would be another feather in Gwinnett's cap as it goes about courting business and industry to locate here. It would be a transportation plum as the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce promotes the Ga. Highway 316 "biotech corridor" connecting Georgia Tech, Emory University and the University of Georgia. An expanded airport would create jobs and raise tax revenues.

Education is the best way to overcome fear. County residents need to get a clear understanding of what the Briscoe expansion will look like before forming an opinion.

In the end, this appears to be another big-city amenity but on a smaller scale -- think Gwinnett Arena, Coolray Field, the Gwinnett Center convention space. A smaller commercial airport fits right in.

J.K. Murphy is the publisher of the Gwinnett Daily Post. E-mail him at jk.murphy@gwinnettdailypost.com.