For the past several years there has been a lot of energy directed at creating Federal legislation to correct the systemic unfairness we all experience living near a large airport like Sea-Tac. On the surface, this makes perfect sense: the FAA has direct authority over all airports. And many, many attempts at obtaining relief by local means have been unsuccessful.
Let’s look at one popular bill, the Aviation Impacted Communities Act (AICA), created by Congressman Adam Smith and see what it contains in a nutshell and what if any elements might be enacted at the City, State, County and State levels–without requiring Federal legislation.
AICA consists of five (5) big items.
1. It removes the DNL65 requirement for noise mitigation–meaning that there is no longer any firm boundary beyond which homes are automatically excluded from sound insulation programs. Under this law, if the community determines a neighborhood deserves noise mitigation? The neighborhood gets noise mitigation.
2. It creates a national system to evaluate ‘impacts’ on communities using independent studies. We very much like the idea of standardization–especially if it leads to true ‘apples to apples’ comparative data between airport communities. So often, communities (and decision makers) have had a poor idea what is really going on at other airports nation-wide.
3. It creates a (kinda/sorta) standardised framework for communities to be designated as ‘impacted’. This would allow cities to create a community board which would charge them with representing the community interests and interact with the airport operator and the FAA to negotiate for relief.
4. That community board would have the right to petition the FAA Administrator for several types of relief, such as sound insulation, but also including the holy grail–changing flight paths.
5. It creates a fund to pay for sound mitigation, air filters, etc. for all these newly eligible homes.
Let’s take ’em one by one
OK. I’m gonna go out on a limb here and imagine a world where this type of legislation does not become law anytime soon. (Meaning planet earth in 2020.) If you can go with me there for a minute, rather than throw up our hands, let’s take a look at which of these items might, realistically, be achieved on our own as Cities, State Reps and Community Activists working together.
1. Done. We just passed HB1847. There is now no legal restriction on obtaining sound insulation for everybody who is seriously impacted by Sea-Tac Airport. In fact, we did better than that. We also passed HB2315 which provides repairs and updates to bad Port Packages. In effect, we now have the outlines of a system to protect every home and public institution in the region in perpetuity. All (all!) we need to do now is work out the details and find the money. But we can work with the Port Of Seattle to do this.
2. Well, let’s just call this a *Mulligan. We got the Dept. Of Commerce Study. But everyone seems to agree that it’s highly flawed; grossly under-funded and thus not able to provide any new data beyond the comprehensive 1997 Study. So, OK, we didn’t get the right study. But we got a study. We did it ourselves–without the Feds. No reason we can’t do it again–except the right way this time. But in the meantime, there is also no reason we cannot leapfrog ahead and obtain one of the primary goals of these studies: Air Quality Monitors. Because at the end of the day, without solid, standardized data, we cannot get decision makers on board for the big ticket changes we all want to see. The way we see it, Air Quality Monitoring is Job #1. Even better, it is among the easiest goals to achieve.
3. There is absolutely no reason why we cannot create our own negotiating team to work with the Port Of Seattle and FAA. We at SeatacNoise.Info have proposed a body of eight (8) electeds: one representative from each of the Airport Cities, one representative chosen by residents of Vashon Island and one person appointed by the Seattle City Council to represent Beacon Hill. That is a small enough group to act nimbly.
4. I’ll come back to this. 😀
5. The AICA sets aside $750 million for relief programs. That number is woefully inadequate when you consider that the Port Of Seattle alone has budgeted close to $300 million just to update the current inventory of Port Packages under the 1996 agreements. We favour a completely different funding mechanism that would provide guaranteed payments to each airport community which are self-funded based on operator income (landing fees) and Passenger Facility Charges (PFC). That would eliminate the constant food fights over which airport gets what annual grants. But set that aside–we’re doing this locally, right? The way forward is to negotiate with the Port Of Seattle for exactly the same thing: an annual stipend based on our own studies. What we need to do is take control over relief projects from the Port. We should decide which homes get treated. We should decide where Air Quality Monitoring is sited. We should decide what other relief is most needed. All we need them for is the checkbook.
OK, back to number four. The Airport Noise And Capacity Act of 1990 (ANCA) already provides for number four. It’s a half-assed number four, but it’s there in black and white.
Let’s back up for a minute: the problem with ANCA is that it was intentionally written, as a two-legged stool. Actually as two two-legged stools. Both unstable arrangements were meant to tilt all the power towards airlines and away from anything which might interfere with the essential interest of transportation and commerce. (The ‘Noise’ portion and in fact the entire Part 150 program was an after-thought to throw a bone to communities), but as we’ve said so many times, the real point of ANCA was to remove community-control from airports.
Anyhoo, the first two-legged stool says that the community does have a right to interface with the FAA. Unfortunately, it has to be done through the operator (in our case the Port Of Seattle). The idea was that the operator would act as an honest broker between the interests of the airlines and the interests of the community. Obviously neither airport operators or the FAA took it seriously. But it’s there in the law. There is a mechanism for the public to take problems to the FAA and then the DOT. One reason we don’t notice it here at Sea-Tac is because our relationship with the local FAA is uniquely toxic among major U.S. airports.
The other two-legged stool is that it says in ANCA that safety and efficiency are the primary goals of the FAA. Community interests of noise and pollution are not co-equal. The third leg is completely missing. And the intentional omission of community as a co-equal consideration in airport planning has always been the single biggest failing of ANCA. And guess what? AICA does nothing to change that. And until there is legislation that explicitly makes ‘community interest’ co-equal with ‘safety and efficiency’ you will not obtain meaningful relief from the FAA. It’s impossible. Each FAA officer would (correctly) interpret the law as meaning, “you can adjust flight paths to make things easier on the community just so long as it doesn’t reduce safety or efficiency”. And they will (correctly) say that they are already doing that. I know that’s hard to hear, but until you give the FAA a direct command: “Your marching orders have changed, you will now make reducing noise as important as safety and efficiency” you will not get them to change flight paths. It’s not in the task description so why would they?
Make love, not war
Unless activists are willing to march– I mean like real old school activists, one cannot hope to obtain attention from lawmakers. And until there some legal breakthrough, you cannot compel the FAA or airport operators. Oh, you may get one meeting and vent yer spleen in dramatic fashion. But good luck getting them back to the table. Why? Because they don’t have to. They’re civil servants, not electeds. They don’t work for you. Yelling at the FAA is about as useful as yelling at a Comcast or AT&T rep on the phone. They will rightly say, “Hey, I just work here. I’m doing my job. Don’t yell at me!”
So one solution is (get ready to swallow hard) be nice to the FAA. Do some serious work to develop a good working relationship at the Region 10 level.
Too far-fetched? Fine, then support a single item bill whose only purpose is to inject Community Interest into the consideration of flight paths. This is not far-fetched as activists seem to think. More on this soon. But the idea I want people to consider is what we learned at the State level with HB2315 and HB1847: It’s a lot easier to get a small bill passed than a large bill.
This does not mean roll over. But it does mean that these institutions, which have a certain amount of latitude and autonomy, cannot be bullied. Given that power dynamic, what is the rational strategy?
Almost all of the substance of the AICA is doable at the local level, through a combination of State legislation, local cooperation, productive lobbying and hard-nosed (but respectful) negotiation.
Even the flight paths, ie. ‘the holy grail’, are actually not as insurmountable a task as we seem to think.
What is clear is that, regardless of all the past disappointments, local solutions are still waaaaaaaaaaay easier to accomplish than Federal legislation–if we have the will. They afford small, but tangible wins along the way, which is empowering. Plus, they develop a long-term strategic approach to managing airport impacts rather than always reacting to each airport expansion in an ad hoc fashion. This seems to us a much better way forward than putting all our energies behind huge Federal bills that cannot become law–or fighting one-off battles like SAMP where the game is heavily rigged against us. We prefer to fight the battles that we choose.
*A ‘do-over’ for non-golfers.