Minneapolis is on track to keep its airport noise insulation program

The Minneapolis airport’s noise mitigation program could have expired next summer, but a new agreement would keep the system in place through 2020.

The program that has insulated 14,500 homes is still in effect, pending Federal Aviation Administration approval of an agreement between the Metropolitan Airports Commission and the cities of Minneapolis, Eagan and Richfield. The extension could impact a stretch of homes south of Lake Harriet that are projected to fall into an area that experiences an average of 60 decibels of airplane noise per day.

The homes likely won’t be insulated anytime soon, however. The properties still need to record three years of threshold noise levels before they would be eligible.

City officials say Minneapolis is lucky, because the proposal would keep the noise program alive at a time when the FAA is implementing stricter noise abatement rules. New FAA policies have added interior noise requirements before abatement, and stopped allowing airports to use passenger facility charges to fund home insulation.

“This regulatory change was extremely concerning to the city and we immediately engaged with federal policymakers and other stakeholders to advocate on behalf of residents of the city,” said Emily Tranter, the city’s Washington-based consultant on airport issues.

The proposed agreement would continue using passenger fees to pay for home insulation, and would continue using the 60 decibel measurement, a threshold lower than most airports. In exchange, city officials agreed not to challenge the sufficiency of an environmental assessment on airport expansion, something the city has questioned in the past. Council Member Sandy Colvin Roy (12th Ward) said the city was willing to drop the issue because legal advisors did not think a challenge would be successful.

Colvin Roy and Council Member John Quincy (11th Ward) lobbied the White House Council on Environmental Quality in March.

“It was an important place to get to have the conversation about aviation from the point of view of a community,” Colvin Roy. “The airport industry itself, the producers of the planes, the operators of the airports all have pretty high-paid, very professional lobbying staff. Their voice is not small in Washington, but for individual communities, it can be very difficult to get heard.”

Another area of local airport concern relates to RNAV (area navigation), which would consolidate scattered flight paths into fewer, tighter flight tracks.

The FAA is currently under pressure from Congress to implement RNAV in every U.S. airport by the summer of 2015.

The local Metropolitan Airports Commission has asked the FAA to only implement RNAV south of the airport, giving officials more time to assess the impact of the program before potential implementation over Southwest Minneapolis.

The FAA has not yet signed off on that request, and it is still evaluating the safety of the idea. Local officials said the sequester, which triggered automatic federal spending cuts, is slowing down the process.

“FAA is struggling right now because under the sequestration everybody was told, cut all your budgets,” said John Dybvig, aide to Council Member Quincy. “FAA was given special dispensation to put more money into controllers to keep that piece of their operation from being cut, but that basically means they have to suck more money out of everything else that they do, like safety studies of RNAV tracks and implementation of RNAV in general. All of these things are going to take a lot longer because of the sequestration.”

Tranter said the city should be applauded for delaying the implementation of RNAV.

“This was a huge success in light of the fact that … there was a directive from Congress to the FAA to implement this in an expedited manner,” she said. “There are several other cities across the country that were also not happy with this process, but did not have the success in delaying.”

Minneapolis’ lobbying is not over, she said.

“There is still a lot of work to do … to make sure that if and when those tracks are made, that the city can have a seat at the deciding table to decide where those tracks go,” Tranter said.

Reach Michelle Bruch at [email protected]