Airport group narrows boundaries for full noise insulation

Compromise affects many who live in Southwest

The noise-insulation program around Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport would extend farther than Northwest Airlines wants and fall short of what antinoise activists would like if a new compromise is adopted.

An airport committee voted March 24 to offer the full sound-mitigation package to residents living between the 65 DNL (day-night noise level) and 62 DNL lines on the Metropolitan Airports Commission's (MAC) recently adopted noise-contour map.

The Noise Oversight Committee (NOC) is made up of community representatives from Minneapolis and five suburbs, and six industry representatives.

Peter Levermore, a United Parcel Service airport properties manager who is the committee's cargo carrier representative, cast the crucial vote. Levermore abandoned his industry peers to side with community representatives favoring more aggressive steps to reduce airport-related racket.

UPS spokesperson Travis Spalding said, "It was a very deliberate vote, something that we [at UPS] thought about a lot. Quite frankly, we signed an agreement in the late '90s to reach a reasonable mitigation program, and the vote was for the recommendation to move forward to implement such a program.

"It's pretty cut-and-dried as far as we're concerned."

The MAC's noise-mitigation program is funded in part by the PFC (Passenger Facility Charge) -- something that parcel services don't pay but passenger airlines do. A $4.50 PFC is added to passenger tickets on flights originating in the Twin Cities.

Northwest Airlines declined to comment about the compromise, as did Kathleen Nelson, NWA's regional director for airport affairs, who also serves as the noise committee's airport user chair.

Litigation mitigation

If the full airport commission adopts the compromise, it will mean that thousands of residents living in the 62-65 DNL range will receive new windows, doors, central air-conditioning and insulation to reduce airport noise indoors by a minimum of five decibels. MAC estimates the average cost is $45,000 per house.

The compromise also means that thousands of other homeowners who live between the 60 and 62 DNL contours won't get the full mitigation package, but they will receive up to $13,500 for central air-conditioning or other noise-dampening enhancements.

Those who live beyond the 60 DNL contour will get nothing to reduce noise in their homes.

Chad Lecqve, manager of the MAC's Aviation Noise and Satellite Programs, said there are 1,377 single-family homes in the 62-65 DNL zone and 4,399 homes in the 60-61 DNL area. He said there is no breakdown indicating how many are in Southwest.

City Councilmember Scott Benson (11th Ward), who represents Minneapolis on the noise committee, said, "Obviously, it's a compromise for the city because our position has always been [the MAC] should do full mitigation to the 60. I think that's what they promised; I think it's clearly recorded. It's in the record of decision, and I think if we sued them in a lawsuit, we'd prevail."

He paused and added, "But I'm not sure that we would."

That uncertainty over the outcome of litigation is a reason why he reluctantly voted for the compromise to ensure noise-mitigation for those beyond the 65 DNL.

Nailing down the MAC

Sara Strzok, the Tangletown resident who leads ROAR (Residents Opposed to Airport Racket), shares Benson's lack of enthusiasm for the compromise.

"Bummer for the people in 60 and 61, huh?" she said. "They really thought they were going to get that insulation.

"There are some real mixed feelings about it in our organization. On one hand, people say 'at least if we set this in stone, they can't back out of this.' And on the other hand, there's a feeling of betrayal of those people who are in those zones that are not going to get insulated."

She added, "I lean a little bit more toward nailing the MAC down to at least make this commitment down to 62. They're under so much pressure from industry, and government as well, to be frugal."

Jim Spensley, head of SMAAC (South Metro Airport Action Council), said his group also has mixed feelings about the compromise.

As of February, the MAC had insulated or begun work on 7,498 homes at or above 65 DNL. The program should be completed at year's end, insulating over 7,600 homes for approximately $227 million.

Benson said the compromise would cost another $150 million, with $70 million from airlines and the rest from the MAC.

Because Northwest Airlines leases about 80 percent of the gates at the airport, it would pay about $56 million toward the compromise. Earlier this month, the airline reported a first-quarter loss of $230 million. Northwest Airlines CEO Richard Anderson said in August that he wants a "moratorium" on further sound-mitigation.

Anderson has told the Star Tribune that it would be "a major policy shift" to insulate homes beyond the 65 DNL contour.

The sounds of science

Many public officials have repeatedly said Northwest agreed in its lease to fund noise mitigation out to 60 DNL, including Benson, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, Councilmember Sandra Roy Colvin (12th Ward), MAC Executive Director Jeff Hamiel and various MAC commissioners, including Rybak's appointee, Dan Boivin. Northwest's lease runs through 2015.

MAC spokesperson Patrick Hogan said, "[NWA] has recently come out and said they really think there's no need to go beyond the 65 DNL because they think the science doesn't merit any insulation beyond that point. They're saying because homes are so well-insulated here, and because aircraft are quieter than they used to be, that it really isn't merited."

The Federal Aviation Administration established the 65 DNL standard for noise-mitigation programs. The FAA ruled that homeowners hit with 65 DNL or more were eligible for government aid.

In a NWA white paper prepared for the MAC, the airline emphatically stated its opposition to further noise-reduction: "No mitigation beyond the 65 DNL can be justified from either a technical or policy perspective."

Said Hogan, "Our plan, as it stands now, is to go out to the 60 with some sort of mitigation program, but one of the things that our board members are going to be wrestling with over the next couple of months is exactly what kind of mitigation program that should be."

He said the MAC will likely vote on the compromise plan in June.

Robert Johnson, a noise committee airport user representative for the Minnesota Business Aviation Association, said he thought the noise committee's vote to extend mitigation was "premature."

Said Johnson, "I have never been totally in favor of going to a level that the federal government doesn't recognize."

Key public meetings

Minneapolis City Councilmember Scott Benson urges affected residents to attend the Wednesday, May 5 meeting of the Metropolitan Airports Commissioner's Planning and Environment Committee at 9 a.m. in the commission chambers on the mezzanine level of the Lindbergh Terminal.

He said the full commission meets May 17 at 1 p.m. in the commission chambers to take public testimony and discuss the noise-insulation compromise. "The only chance, as I understand it, for the public to testify before either the Planning and Environment Committee or the full MAC is going to be at these May meetings," Benson said.