Who needs a small urban airport, anyway? Not, apparently, Mayor Luke Bronin of Hartford, who has advocated shutting down Brainard Airport, located in the city’s South Meadows, so the city can develop the land.
This struck me as a bad idea at first. How many cities the size of Hartford have their own airport, anyway? It seemed more like an asset than a drag, and there are a lot of good arguments for keeping it open.
For instance, the airport serves as a hub for certain kinds of aviation-related industry, and there are jobs and activities located at the airport itself. For example, there are two flight schools, a corporate terminal, the Connecticut Civil Air Wing, and some state police operations all based at Brainard.
And it’s not as if the place isn’t busy. I work fairly nearby, now, and there are always planes and helicopters flying in and out of Brainard. State government and the big corporations of downtown Hartford often use Brainard because it’s convenient; it’s much easier to travel a few miles through Hartford than it is to go all the way up to Windsor Locks to get to Bradley International Airport.
Brainard is a unique asset, then, and something a lot of other cities don’t have. So why should the legislative committee tasked with reviewing the status of the airport vote to close it?
Simple: it’s all about land.
Here’s the thing: Hartford is tiny. Thanks to our system of independent small towns, the size of which was based mainly on how far a Puritan could travel on foot to church without missing the service, Hartford is an awful lot smaller than most other cities of its density and population. This is one of the major reasons why the city is often in budget crisis, and why property taxes are so high: the city simply can’t generate enough economic activity given the land constraints it has to adequately serve a mainly poor population of renters.
Hartford also has a lot of land that can’t be used for development, and therefore can’t add to the tax base. Think of how much land I-91 and I-84 take up, for instance. Entire neighborhoods were lost to our inexplicable need to run massive superhighways right through downtown. There’s also the massive Mount Trashmore that rises above the North Meadows; the ground there is landfill ash that no one’s going to be able to build on.
The city also has a lot of land that isn’t taxable, such as hospitals, churches, colleges, museums, and nonprofit institutions. In fact, according to Bronin, 51 percent of Hartford’s property isn’t taxable.
That brings us back to the airport. It’s one of the few parts of Hartford that offers access to the river that isn’t also part of a flood plain like the North Meadows. The airport is at the junction of I-91 and the busy Route 5 & 15 highway and is fairly easy to access from both. Lastly, a mostly-disused rail line runs nearby, meaning that if the state ever decides to get serious about light rail or building another busway, Brainard’s land would be an easy connection to mass transit.
Is there really a future for small, urban airports anyway? Brainard doesn’t have public passenger service, after all; no airlines serve it. Many of the people flying in and out are either hobbyist pilots or corporate passengers on private planes. This means the airport operates mainly for the benefit of people who don’t live in the city; it’s sort of like Dunkin Donuts Park but with planes (and also open).
Small airports like Brainard have been struggling for years. Brainard itself operates at a loss. Tweed-New Haven has only minimal passenger service, and a needed runway expansion has been met with fierce local opposition. Groton-New London Airport doesn’t offer passenger service any longer, and Bridgeport’s Sikorsky Airport is mainly used by charter flights and FedEx.
Urban airports make less and less sense. They take up way too much land, but the space limitations of urban areas often means they can’t expand to handle modern jet aircraft. The impact from noise and pollution is also much worse in a city than it would be in an isolated area in the suburbs or countryside.
As for Brainard, closing an airport is a complicated thing. But I think the legislative committee tasked with deciding the airport’s future should start that process. A plan from the early 2000s suggested apartment buildings, stores, and parks on the site. I have to believe that homes and stores would be much better for Hartford than airplanes and helicopters.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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