The Sound and the Fury

Controversial MAC budget maneuvers, possible re-drawing of noise contour maps may signify nothing for SW homes

Those hoping for airport-paid noise relief under the expanded sound-insulation program are facing a double-whammy.

First, while the Metropolitan Airports Commission earmarked $150 million for its sound-insulation program, it has approved a plan that would allow it to pocket any savings if it comes in under budget. The move leads some to question MAC’s commitment to the program and may run afoul of an agreement it had with the Metropolitan Council.

Second, the MAC may redraw its airplane noise map based on new, lower flight numbers and

quieter aircraft — a move that would reduce the number of homes eligible for sound insulation.

That decision is expected in May.

MAC has tried for months to put decisions on the second phase of the sound insulation program behind it. On April 15 it unanimously approved a new plan.

Phase 1 provides benefits to homeowners living where computer models estimated average plane noise at 65 decibels or greater. It pays for new doors, windows, insulation, heating and/or air-conditioning systems and other improvements to reduce interior noise by 5 decibels. Average costs are now running $44,000 per home.

Phase II provides benefits to homeowners living where computer models estimate average plane noise between 60 and 65 decibels. It is the lowest noise threshold of any airport sound-insulation program in the country.

The MAC promised sound insulation to the 60-decibel line in 1996, a concession when the legislature approved the airport expansion.

Many people believe the MAC promised the same 5-decibel package in Phase II as it provided in Phase I, and have criticized proposals that do less. MAC said it never promised full benefits and it lacks the money to pay for it.

Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, who campaigned as the anti-airport noise candidate, asked the MAC for the full 5-decibel package for everyone eligible in Phase II.

The measure had no chance of passing, and Roger Hale, Rybak’s representative on MAC, didn’t bother to offer the mayor’s request for a vote, fearing, he said, it would undermine a more pragmatic deal.

MAC approved Hale’s compromise package:

 

     

     

  • The 1,026 homes in the area with jet noise estimated between 63 and 65 decibels will get the full 5-decibel package. Estimated cost: $45 million.

     

     

  • The 7,097 homes in the area with jet noise estimated between 60 and 63 decibels will get a mechanical package — new heating, air conditioning and ductwork as needed, but not new doors, windows nor insulation. Estimated cost: $67.6 million.

     

     

  • MAC may determine that some homes in the 60-63 decibel area have particularly poor sound-insulating properties and after testing it may provide added benefits. Estimated cost: $6 million.

     

     

  • Those who have already paid for sound-insulating improvement could receive up to a $10,000 reimbursement for qualifying expenses. Estimated cost: $29.5 million.

     

     

 

"The vote we got was the best we could get out of the MAC," Rybak said. "The bottom line remains, the airports commission did not follow through on the pledge they made."

Rybak praised Hale for negotiating the deal. Former Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton appointed Hale to the post. He is stepping down, and Rybak said he would name a replacement in the coming weeks.

Battle looming with the Met Council MAC forecasts spending $148 million of the $150 million it has budgeted for sound insulation. So what happens with the extra $2 million — or whatever money is left over when the last home is insulated?

MAC commissioner Bert McKasy offered an amendment that said if MAC were to spend less than the $150 million budget, it should not spend the rest on noise mitigation.

His motion passed 8-7. Those supporting it said it was the fiscally prudent thing to do. Hale opposed it, saying on the outside chance MAC only spent something like $110 million it would be a "betrayal."

(An effort to dedicate unspent money to pay for noise mitigation for apartment buildings failed on a voice vote.)

MAC’s Phase II sound-insulation plan has one more hurdle to clear — the Met Council, which has oversight on portions of MAC’s capital budget.

On March 13, the Met Council approved $18.5-million worth of MAC building projects for 2002. It conditioned its approval on MAC reaffirming its $150-million commitment to noise mitigation.

Met Council member Mary Hill Smith cautioned the MAC board that failing to spend the full $150 million "is not going to be received well."

The Met Council members "felt strongly we should hold your feet to the fire," she said. "It will put your (capital plans) into a holding pattern until you work that out."

Met Council member Frank Hornstein told MAC the $150 million should be a floor, not a ceiling, for its sound-insulation program.

MAC Executive Director Jeff Hamiel will attend the May 8 Met Council meeting to explain his board’s position. MAC needs to be explicit about the program’s future benefits, he said, or 10 years from now it would face unhappy neighbors who feel they are not getting something they were promised.

He can expect questions from Met Council member Phil Riveness, who helped craft the original agreement on MAC’s capital budget.

Riveness called the McKasy amendment "premature" and "ill advised." "What they have lost by taking this action is some credibility in the minds of people who often wondered about the MAC’s commitment to noise mitigation," he said.

Redrawing the map The tool MAC uses to determine who qualifies for the sound-insulation program is called the noise contour map.

It has a series of lines showing where average noise is estimated to be 65 decibels, 64 decibels, 63 decibels and so on.

The number of eligible homes shrunk once last year — and could shrink yet again. If that happens, it adds more significance to the McKasy amendment. It means fewer homes will qualify for insulation and MAC will need less of the $150 million to meet its obligation — and can spend more on other projects.

The draft noise map MAC showed the public last summer included 10,040 homes in the newly qualifying area, where average noise is between 60 and 65 decibels. The final map submitted to the Federal Aviation Administration last fall had 8,123 homes, or nearly a 20 percent reduction.

More than 1,300 homes in South Minneapolis lost eligibility.

The map changed because of the projected increased in the use of quieter planes, MAC staff said.

There are those on the MAC who are pushing to redo the map again, using 2002 as a base year instead of 2000.

Vice Chair Nancy Speer made a motion to that effect April 15. It was tabled until the May 20 meeting.

A revised map would take into account such things as the reduced number of flights post-Sept. 11 and any other changes in the types of planes used.

John DeCoster, Northwest Airline’s regional director of airport affairs, told MAC he believed the current sound map was no longer accurate and redoing it would reduce the number of eligible homes.

MAC staff has not yet run the numbers, said Chad Leqve, MAC’s manager of aviation, noise and satellite programs. If it did, it would likely reduce the number of eligible homes, he said.

That change would affect homeowners in South Minneapolis more than any other community. Of the 8,123 homes eligible in the newly qualified area, nearly 75 percent are in South Minneapolis.

Shrinkage won’t sit well with people like City Councilmember Scott Benson (11th Ward), who has been active in ROAR, Residents Opposed to Airport Racket.

Revamping the noise map again would be "absurd," he said.

"We have always argued the contours were too small anyway because the MAC didn’t take into consideration the actual number of flights," he said.

"I suspect now that the number of flights has decreased given the events of Sept. 11, that Northwest — and perhaps the MAC will be amenable to this — wants to take a measure at a point in time when flights are lower than they otherwise might be. I think it would be contrary to the whole methodology they have been using."

Next steps Rybak, another ROAR member, said homes in neighborhoods like Fulton, Central and Seward have significant airplane noise pollution, yet would not qualify for sound-insulation assistance.

He is working on other fronts to try to reduce airport noise, he said. He has begun to meet with MAC members and St. Cloud-area legislators to talk about diverting traffic to the St. Cloud airport. Similar discussions would take place with Rochester and St. Paul representatives, he said.

He has talked to St. Paul Mayor Randy Kelly about improving cooperation on airport issues. Because of the runway alignment, St. Paul gets little airplane traffic, but that could change as traffic pressure increases, Rybak said.

(Kelly’s representative on MAC voted to support McKasy to limit MAC’s sound-insulation expenses, the swing in the 8-7 vote.)

"We need them to be aggressive partners, or they are going to wake up some day and Highland Park will sound a lot like Lake Nokomis," Rybak said.

Minneapolis is also developing a citywide air-quality standard, the mayor said. It will measure the impacts of airport pollution as well other sources like power plants and traffic.

"The pollution area may be one in which the city can begin to find a legal way to set a limit on the amount of airplane traffic that goes over neighborhoods," Rybak said. "This is uncharted legal territory. It is unclear whether we can make progress on it."