Met Council maneuvers to maintain MAC sound-insulation program

The Met Council is flexing its muscle in trying to shape the Metropolitan Airport Commission's home sound-insulation program -- threatening to withhold approval of MAC capital projects if it doesn't firm up its commitment to the insulation program.

The MAC recently has vacillated on the sound-insulation program. It voted in August to maintain the current benefit level as the program expanded into less noisy neighborhoods. Facing declining revenues, however, it rescinded that vote in January and said it would reassess in April.

Enter Met Council Member Phil Riveness, who used something of a legal club to force the MAC's hand. The Met Council has the authority to approve specific airport capital projects, those in excess of $5 million that fit into certain categories.

This year, MAC is seeking the Met Council's approval for $18.5 million to build the intersection between the new north-south runway and an existing runway, and $11 million for a series of projects at the Humphrey terminal, said Nigel Finney, MAC's deputy executive director for planning and environment.

The Airport Commission came before the Met Council's Transportation Committee Feb. 25. In a move Finney said surprised the MAC, the committee passed a resolution offered by Riveness tying the capital money to MAC maintaining the benefit level of its home sound-insulation program.

"It is a most appropriate to discuss both the needs of the airport from a safety and capacity standpoint and the needs of the community from an environmental and a quality-of-life standpoint," Riveness said. "The issues are valid to knit together."

The full Met Council is scheduled to consider the issue again March 13.

Behind the scenes, Met Council and MAC members and their staffs are meeting to try to reach a deal.

Riveness served in the state House of Representatives in 1996 when the state gave the MAC the go-ahead to expand at its current site. As part of that deal, MAC agreed to expand its sound insulation program.

The language in the promise was vague, however, and parties have disputed what it meant.

In 2001, MAC considered a number of options for expanding the program. It provides homeowners in the most heavily affected neighborhoods with new doors, windows, insulation and air conditioning to reduce the interior noise level by five decibels. Costs now exceed $40,000 per home, on average.

MAC considered less expensive options in less noisy neighborhoods -- plans some viewed as MAC breaking its 1996 promise.

MAC has $150 million earmarked for the project, not enough to do all eligible homes at the current benefit level. Riveness said he worried MAC was trying to back away from even that commitment.

He had two goals in negotiations, Riveness said. One is to set $150 million as the floor of MAC's commitment, not the ceiling.

Second, "I will be strongly, strongly advocating for a commitment to giving homeowners a range of options when they look at what kind of accommodations would be most suitable for their homes," he said.