Letter To The Port Commission: A Two Point Plan

Dear Commissioner,

Following up on my public comment yesterday, I want to offer a simple, two-point plan which provides a relatively painless way for our communities to work together with the Port Of Seattle to deal with the problems we all recognize are making life so difficult for residents.

The Airport Discount

When I first started hanging out in Des Moines twenty five years ago, there was a joke among homeowners called the ‘airport discount’. It meant that homeowners enjoyed a bigger ‘bang for buck’ than similarly priced homes in other waterfront towns. You paid less in exchange for having planes fly over every 3-5 minutes. That was market forces doing their job.

Today, market forces no longer operate to provide adequate compensation to residents, either in terms of noise or pollution. You know that. Everyone knows that. And something must be done.

Paying For The Externalities

Several of you identify as friends of the environment and thus expect that, sooner or later, we’re all going to have to pay the true environmental cost of the products we use; not just carbon, but all the externalities. Whereas once upon a time, many people simply left litter by the side of the road, now most of us wouldn’t think to do such a thing. We now expect to clean up after ourselves and beyond that to pay a small amount to keep the places safe and clean for the next person.

Except that your airport and your customers (the airlines) don’t do that. They get away with not only not paying for any of their externalities, you don’t even have the means in place to accurately track the amounts of noise and pollution that they generate on an ongoing basis. These two things have got to stop.

Breaking The Cycle Of One-Offs: A Two Point Plan

What I do not want for Des Moines is a one-off plan like we always get during each of your expansions. That is a terrible way to approach these ongoing problems. I know this because it’s been tried after each previous airport expansion. The way it always goes is this: A number of studies are conducted and a variety of mitigations are then either enacted or not enacted—depending on the amount of bone-jarring fights between the Port and the communities. This sequence not only enrages residents but also costs the Port a ton of resources in terms of project delays and cost overruns. I can assure you that it will be the case on this expansion as well because that is how the whole SEPA/NEPA cycle works! It’s a flawed system that unintentionally angers residents and costs operators like the Port a ton of extra money.

I believe that you want to do the right thing: provide useful mitigations for residents and reduce noise and pollution wherever possible with as little friction as possible. And what I’m telling you is that the current design/build/litigate/mitigate cycle is exactly the wrong way to achieve this.

What I propose instead, as I’ve suggested in my two minute drills, is a very simple two point plan that I believe offers a way off this merry-go-round and benefit us all both now and in the long run:

Point One: A Monitoring System

First, we need a monitoring system—or rather two monitoring systems. Instead of the current deal where we get bespoke studies every five or ten or twenty years, the Port should install an off-the-shelf system to monitor noise over the actual flight paths using current best practices. This should include full flight data that is 100% publicly available. Residents shouldn’t constantly be arguing about how high the flights are, how loud they are, etc. That data should be easily trackable over time for every neighbourhood out to a six mile radius of the TRACON.

The Port also should install a real-time monitoring of the dozen or so most common airborne pollutants, including PM25s and heavy metals. We should be able to see month by month and neighbourhood by neighbourhood the extent of the impacts from the airplanes. Until now, this has been portrayed as something of bleeding-edge research when in fact, there are off-the-shelf products available right now which provide this information and simple tests that can be run by any number of competent labs to analyze the key toxic components of Jet-A and sloughed-off engine materials.

This monitoring system should also be a no-brainer. Anyone living next to any pollution point source deserves to know, month by month, the extent of the impacts to their health. Whether or not you are legally required to do this or not is moot; it’s the right thing to do. You know it’s the right thing to do. And as a bonus it’s not very expensive at all in the grand scheme of things. In fact, it would be the single biggest PR win the Port could imagine. An airport that volunteers to honestly track its own impacts? That’s marketing gold.

Point Two: Paying For Externalities

Second, you (and by ‘you’ I mean your customers, the airlines) need to get in the habit of paying for their externalities. I know this may initially be a tough sale, having gotten this for free for so long, but it is going to happen. And again, if history is any predictor, you will save a great deal of money by dealing with it now and avoiding a lot of friction with the communities later.

But because this is such a fraught topic, I suggest we start with the least controversial item and work our way up. Call this a ‘proof of concept’. If we can do this, it means that the Port and the community can work together to solve other, far more difficult problems of noise and pollution without rancor and expensive, time-wasting litigation.

Given the current state of air traffic, the Port Packages of special insulation and windows are not optional. Life without them is, for the vast majority, unbearable and thus, the Port should make every effort to help homeowners obtain and maintain their Port Packages.

There are a number of families in Des Moines inside the current Noise Boundary, who never got the Port Package; my count is between 23 and 25 homes. These are homes where the original owners decided against signing the Avigation Easement. However the current homeowners are now willing to do so and thus should be offered expedited installation.

Further, there are many homes where the windows have failed in fairly spectacular ways. I’m not talking normal wear and tear but obviously poor construction or shoddy installation practice. A system should be put in place where the Port provides at least some assistance to correct these installations.

Finally, there are even a small number of homeowners who received a ‘half-package’. Unbelievably (to me anyway) one side of the house (the side facing the runway) received triple-pane windows and insulation but the other side did not! Those homeowners should receive upgrades to windows and insulation around the entire home.

At yesterday‘s Port Meeting, I suggested a starting fund balance of $2 million. Having researched the costs for homeowners who opted to have this work done at their own expense and then investigating what a contractor discount might be for a large customer such as yourself, I believe this amount to be adequate to cover the above projects.

A Way Forward That Works For Everybody

We’ll need someone to assess claims and disburse funds. I believe this would be a fine use of the current StART Committee. I also believe you’d find that these citizens will do as fair and restrained a job evaluating claims as any paid assessor.

Going forward, I believe that this committee could then be tasked to focus on working with your ops people to solve the thornier ongoing issues of curfews, noise and pollution. Together.

What is killing the StART committee; what is killing any ability to resolve our differences; in fact what is moving us all rapidly towards a whole lot of wasted time and money is our inability to resolve any practical issues. Getting a few families the Port Packages that they already deserve is a no-brainer. Far more importantly, it’s a chance for us to do something meaningful together.

I’ve watched Highline Forums and Port Commission Meetings and now StART Meetings for a loooong time and all the talk, talk, talk has gotten us nowhere. The money I’m talking about isn’t nothing. It’s significant enough to be very meaningful to the families it would help. But in terms of the Port’s current P&L it’s not even a one percent expense. Don’t the airport communities deserve one percent of your revenues in exchange for all the unpaid externalities we endure every day?

Again, the Port and the airlines need to become acclimated to the notion of paying for their externalities. This plan makes introducing that concept as painless as possible. It also provides immediate relief for your neighbors which will ultimately translate into saving you time and money on appeals and litigation.

Finally. I want to stress how much a program like this would change the airport community’s attitude towards the Port Of Seattle. The people of Des Moines want to be your good neighbors. However, we cannot help but see all your current grant programs such as the ACE and the Des Moines Marina development as transparently self-serving. No matter how well-intentioned, you can’t expect us to appreciate these shiny penny tricks because none of them tackle what we trulycare about: noise and pollution. But the above plan would immediately change that perception.

Therefore I urge you to take action on this plan in your 2019 Budget because it will change the dynamic between the Port and the people of Des Moines, because it will ultimately save the Port a great deal of money and because it is the right thing to do.



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