Airport’s surprise expansion plan has noise critics fuming

Will money taken from noise-insulation plans be used to put more planes in the sky?

A new $862 million plan to expand Minneapolis-St. Paul International airport has drawn outraged cries from those living near the airport.

City Councilmember Scott Benson (11th Ward) said that the plan to add 46 more gates, a new concourse, an outdoor people-mover, a 400-room hotel and more to the airport just two months after the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC) and Northwest in effect claimed the cupboard was bare for noise insulation is an outrage.

"They basically wanted to steal all of this money they had promised for [noise] insulation and use it to expand the airport for Northwest," he said. "Not for competition, not for the betterment of air travel in Minnesota, not to save consumers money, but to fortify Northwest's hub here in Minnesota and give them more monopoly profits."

In July, the MAC voted to cut by almost three-quarters a plan that would have fully insulated homes in the 63-64 DNL (day-night level) sound contour near the airport and given those in the 60-62 DNL free central air conditioning.

Instead, the MAC approved a sliding-fee subsidy for both groups to buy central air. No other sound insulation was included.

The city claims the MAC agreed to fully insulate homes out to 60 DNL in 1996; the MAC denies this and said its plan goes beyond federal requirements.

The same airports commissioners who fought against trimming noise-mitigation question the expansion plan, which Gov. Tim Pawlenty announced Sept. 21.

Commissioner Coral Houle, who represents southern and western suburbs, said she felt blindsided by the announced reinvention of an airport currently undergoing a $3.1 billion expansion. "Many of us [commissioners] did [feel stunned], most definitely," she said. "It didn't feel right."

Commissioner Dan Boivin, Mayor R.T. Rybak's appointee, said he also felt blindsided and that he and Houle aren't the only ones upset with Pawlenty, MAC Chair Vicki Tigwell and Northwest for presenting a plan that didn't include the commission that owns and operates the airport.

"There's a number of commissioners now who feel a little PO'd at Northwest," he said.

MAC Commissioner Bert McKasy, who lives in Inver Grove Heights and supported the noise-insulation cutbacks, said that the growth and stability of Minnesota's largest employer drove the plan.

"We're fortunate to have a larger carrier like Northwest right in our own backyard," said McKasy. "It's no secret that they've been struggling financially. And I think to return to profitability, they're going to have to increase their volume and to do that, they're going to need enhanced infrastructure."

McKasy said the commission has work to do to understand the latest proposal and to help shape it.

"Right now, that's sort of Northwest's plan, and I think it's incumbent on us to get comfortable with it or make changes to it so that it's our plan as well."

He said the commission is inclined to "look favorably on doing something to strengthen our lead carrier" but that he can't predict if the Northwest plan will be approved or not.

In the wake of 9/11 and the resulting drop in air traffic, Southwest residents and others might be asking why we need a bigger airport now.

Minneapolis-based airline analyst Terry Trippler said he did not doubt Northwest's projections of a 66 percent increase in passengers by 2020 -- when 55 million people would fly through the airport. However, he noted that Northwest's fleet is currently flying at about 80 percent of capacity, so that if a big increase in passengers is projected, more flights can be expected.

According to Merland Otto, the city's principal planner on airport noise, the airport had 512,000 flights last year (80 percent of which were on Northwest planes). That averages out to just over 1,400 flights per day; in other words, nearly one per minute, all day, every day. Otto estimates that there will be roughly 750,000 annual flights in 2020 -- one every 45 seconds -- if Northwest's passenger predictions come true.

At some point, said Trippler, "The skies around that airport are going to get full."

What would full skies sound like?

Otto said it's impossible to predict today what the airport will sound like in 2020. However, current trends are towards more regional jets -- smaller, quieter planes. Unfortunately, though the jets are quieter, there will be more of them.

Otto said if you live near the airport, you might hear fewer big, bad takeoffs in the future. The tradeoff? A steady roar of smaller planes seating anywhere from 32 to 122 people taking off from MSP.

Will beefed-up noise insulation be part of a bigger airport?

Said Boivin, "I can assure you that, every step of the way, myself and a number of other commissioners will be attempting to re-institute the noise program as part of any of these negotiations and decisions."

Boivin said he hopes that he can use the desired expansion of the airport to dangle as a bargaining chip for more sound insulation for folks in Southwest and next-door suburbs.

Houle, -- who, along with Boivin and Ilona McCauley were the lone dissenting voices in the July vote to reduce the insulation program -- is pessimistic.

She said she expects that a majority of commissioners will approve the plan and that few voices outside the metro area will be raised in opposition.

"The rest of the state doesn't care," she said. "Basically, I think the rest of the state would say, 'What's the problem? If you don't like the noise, why don't you move?'"

According to the MAC's own projections, the sound is moving, too.

The MAC's most recent sound map shows airport noise diminishing in Southwest, but booming in southern suburbs such as Burnsville and Bloomington and southeastern suburbs such as Mendota Heights.

Many dispute the MAC's claims that airport noise is actually getting slightly softer even as its contours change.

Benson said noise would "absolutely" get worse near the airport with the proposed expansion."Obviously, all of the facts, figures and projections they gave were complete hooey. There isn't truth in any of it."

Northwest doesn't have noise-increase projections, airline spokeswoman Mary Stanik said.