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RDU Airport plans to expand parking areas, some concerned over environmental impact


Raleigh-Durham International Airport serves the Triangle area and the greater North Carolina community. Photo courtesy of RDU Airport Authority.

Raleigh-Durham International Airport plans to nearly triple the size of one of its parking lots to accommodate an increase in passenger traffic, raising environmental concerns. The construction will increase the lot’s proximity to William B. Umstead State Park. 

The parking lot construction is part of its Vision 2040 Master Plan, which is RDU’s 25-year plan for growth. 

RDU plans to expand Park Economy 3, a lot that requires shuttle buses to take passengers between the lot and terminals, by an additional 8,700 parking spaces. The lot currently has 3,820 spaces.

Chapel Hill resident Chandra Lovejoy usually uses terminal parking rather than economy lots when she drives to RDU.

“When I do park in the other areas, I do find that it is tough to find parking. So, I think they definitely are going to need to add more parking spaces,” Lovejoy said. 

Jean Spooner, chairperson of the Umstead Coalition, said the Park Economy 3 Expansion Project will remove some of the forest buffer around Umstead State Park, impacting stormwater treatment, animal habitats and visitors’ experience in the park.

Tim Aydlett, president of North Carolina Friends of State Parks, echoed Spooner's concerns. 

“When you deforest an area, you're increasing light pollution and you're increasing noise pollution,”  Aydlett said. “And that's not what our visitors go to Umstead Park to experience.”

Aydlett also said the construction will “infringe” upon Haleys Branch, a stream near RDU. 

Spooner explained that Haleys Branch is a major drainage waterway in the area, and Aydlett said sediment from the lot and stormwater heated by the pavement will affect the stream’s ecosystem.

In November, RDU instated Project Environmental Compliance Review Policy, which aims to ensure projects implemented at RDU follow necessary environmental laws and regulations.

The ECR policy also requires a public participation process, including public comment periods and workshops.

On Jan. 9, RDU held a public workshop as part of its environmental review process for the Park Economy 3 Expansion Project. According to RDU’s Director of Strategic Communications Kiara Jones, the ECR is the first in airports across the country.

“We believe in fully participating at every opportunity we can and asking for additional participation so that we can get public input, and we can get it evaluated and not have it disregarded,” Spooner, who attended the workshop on Jan. 9, said.

At the workshop, Spooner said her organization had concerns about the lack of a wide forest buffer and the lack of stormwater treatment presented in the plan. She said the maps provided did not display topographic information or the boundaries of Umstead State Park. 

“There wasn't a person in the room that didn't at first notice, right away, that they failed to put the boundary of their neighbor on the board,” Spooner said. “So, that was kind of disrespectful.”

Spooner said RDU did not present the public with alternative solutions to the current plan, but she said potential alternatives to the parking lot expansion include building on other locations further away from the state park, fewer additional parking spots or a parking garage.

Allie Thomas, assistant professor in UNC’s city and regional planning department, said there are more sustainable ways to increase efficiency at RDU than building a parking lot.

She said paved surfaces contribute to urban runoff and flooding, including flooding of wastewater treatment, during extreme weather events. 

Thomas also said public transportation, such as express buses taking passengers from the Triangle area directly to the terminal, is a sustainable and efficient alternative to cars.

“It’s in everyone’s interest to have alternative route ways of getting to their airport that don’t require single occupancy vehicles,” Thomas said. “You’re just encouraging an unsustainable way of getting to the airport.”

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