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Italian airport expansion opposed

SIENA, Italy (eTN) – Plans to bring this city into the jet age with the expansion of its small airport are being contested by an embattled group of citizens who say that Siena is doing fine, just as it is.

SIENA, Italy (eTN) – Plans to bring this city into the jet age with the expansion of its small airport are being contested by an embattled group of citizens who say that Siena is doing fine, just as it is.

more stories like thisThe last thing these locals want are an additional half-million odd tourists that the backers of the airport predict would be landing in Siena by 2020. Tourism is already thriving, the naysayers contend, with more than a million visitors coming by land each year, many drawn to the action of Siena’s colorful horse race, il Palio.

They don’t want the construction of new terminals, parking lots, and infrastructures to service the airport’s increased capacity, and they fear that more tourists would only lead to more large-scale business enterprises, like outlet malls or hotel chains.

They are also worried about the noise, the pollution, and the impact that the airport could have on the surrounding countryside, a blend of medieval churches, castles, and hamlets nestled within natural reserves, forests, and farmlands.

Progress cannot be measured only in terms of boosting gross domestic product, said Luciano Fiordoni, an economist who spoke at a recent anti-airport rally in Siena. “You have to factor in quality of life. We don’t object to growth, but our main intent is to remain human.”

But for the Ampugnano airport’s current board of administration the alternatives are simple: grow or throw in the towel.

Built in the 1930s as a military airfield for Mussolini’s troops, it turned civilian a few years ago and has been bleeding cash ever since, between half a million and 800,000 euros, or nearly $1.2 million, a year, according to the board’s president, Enzo Viani. “It was unthinkable to think that it could continue losing money,” he said by telephone. “We had to make a decision.”

That decision was a public tender for a project to expand the airport that was won early this year by the Galaxy Fund, a dedicated transportation infrastructure equity fund whose core investors are the French Groupe Caisse des Depots, the Italian Cassa Depositi e Prestiti and the German state development bank Kreditanstalt fuer Wiederaufbau. The European Investment Bank is also one of Galaxy’s co-investors.

With Galaxy’s 50 million-euro investment, and another $30 million thrown in by the airport’s current shareholders – Siena’s municipal and provincial governments, its chamber of commerce, the municipality of Sovicille and the local bank Monte dei Paschi di Siena – the airport would become profitable, Viani said.

Essentially, the investment would ensure that the runway would be operable for its entire length – 1,500 meters, or 4,920 feet – allowing midsized planes that carry anywhere between 30 and 80 people to operate in safety. Currently, executive jets and light planes have been the airport’s main customers.

The project has not been formally adopted yet as the local administrations weigh the findings of environmental impact studies and gauge the mood of local citizens, Viani said.

According to Galaxy’s project, available on the Siena airport website, the expanded airport would be host to flights to 15 destinations – mostly European capitals – by 2009. Incoming tourists would go from nearly 150,000 in 2009 to around 330,000 in 2012.