Met Council wins sound-insulation "options"

The Metropolitan Council flexed its muscle to shape the airport's home sound-insulation program and found power in the letter "s".

A deal struck between the Council and the Metropolitan Airports Commission eliminates the possibility that MAC could offer homeowners an air-conditioning-only package as the sole option to mitigate jet noise in the expanded sound-insulation coverage area. That area includes parts of Southwest, southeast of Lake Harriet.

MAC now has to offer not a single option, but "options" to homeowners, under terms of a negotiated agreement.

"The fact that we added the term 'options' for residents is extremely significant," said Metropolitan Council Member Phil Riveness, who pushed the issue. "They ought to be offered a menu of options --what could best reduce noise in their own home -- not an option chosen by someone else.

"The use of the term 'options' clearly means you can't offer an air-conditioning-only option."

Frank Hornstein, Southwest's representative on the Metropolitan Council, supported the action.

"I hope this is the beginning of the Council becoming more actively engaged in noise mitigation," he said.

The MAC has vacillated on the expanded sound-insulation program, something to which it committed in 1996. MAC voted in August to maintain the current benefit level as the program expanded into less-noisy neighborhoods, and would work as far as its $150 million would go, starting with the noisiest areas first.

Facing declining revenues, MAC rescinded its decision in January, said Nigel Finney, MAC's deputy executive director for planning and environment. The MAC board had planned to revisit the sound-insulation issue, April 15.

The current benefits involve new doors, windows and other improvements to lower interior noise by 5 decibels. The average cost per home now exceeds $40,000.

One less-expensive option MAC previously discussed is the air conditioning-only package, a plan that drew criticism from affected residents. Many homes already have air-conditioning and would therefore get no benefit, they said.

The Metropolitan Council used its authority to approve MAC's capital projects as the lever to force MAC's hand prior to

its April 15 meeting. MAC needed the Council's approval for $18.5 million in construction projects.

Council Chair Ted Mondale said council members were concerned.

"Here we are, approving the (MAC) capital plan, our legislative duty, and they don't have a soundproofing position,"

he said. "There was discussion of things that wouldn't be workable for some communities," he said.

After behind-the-scenes negotiations, the Council March 13 approved the capital requests -- on the condition MAC maintained its $150-million commitment, and gave homeowners soundproofing "options."

"It shows the benefit of an activist rather than a passive council," Mondale said.

Finney said he thought the new language was good for both MAC and the Metropolitan Council.

Both Riveness and Mondale are familiar with the sound-insulation debate. Both served in the state legislature in 1996 when MAC promised to expand the program.

The problem is, no one ever wrote down exactly what that promise meant.

The people who live in neighborhoods affected by jet noise, and the elected officials who represented them, said MAC promised to maintain the current benefits as it expanded into less-noisy neighborhoods.

MAC said it promised some improvements, but not necessarily the full package.

Mondale was a key player in the airport debate. The legislature needed to decide on a site for the airport in order to secure federal money for light-rail transit, he recalled.

"I don't think anybody seriously thought we would build a new airport," he said. "It would have been the greatest producer of urban sprawl in the metro area."

The legislature ended the dual-track process, agreeing to let MAC expand on its current site. MAC agreed to expand the sound-insulation program -- but it never committed to specific "1-2-3-4" benefit levels for those newly eligible homes, Mondale said.

"We never got to the point of how much money," he said. "$150 million -- that is real money."

Mondale said the Council's action March 13 was not a major victory -- except for some homes that otherwise might not have gotten sound insulation. "The world will be better for a few hundred families," he said.

The Council will have the chance to revisit the issue, if it chooses, the next time MAC comes back seeking approval of a capital project.

"Any year they have to spend more than $5 million, they have to come back," Riveness said. "This is an opportunity every year."