Hard Cap On Flights: A Proposal

Posted on Categories Airport

This is a proposal to address the noise and pollution problems in communities surrounding Sea-Tac Airport by establishing a hard cap on flights.

This idea is quite simple and also quite similar to the notion of salary caps in pro sports. The various stakeholders–including the community, would set a number of operations (flights) which is the daily maximum. There would also be a 4 hour nighttime quiet period. I suggest 1,000 as this gets us back to where we were in 2010, with a DNL less than 60dbA. I think this is extremely reasonable given the health risks, but it’s a start. The important thing is not the number of operations. Really, the important thing is the dbA level and the emissions tonnage. THOSE are the cap, but we do NOT make them part of the formula simply because they are way too subject to weaseling by various sets of stats. The number of operations, on the other hand, is simple.

Like a pro sports cap, the Port then sits down with all the airlines (team owners) and they negotiate how the pie gets sliced. It becomes THEIR problem.

Then, I would suggest 2 pot sweeteners:
1. The Port and airlines would get paid for reducing DNL (average noise over the course of a day). Eg. if they reduce the DNL 1dbA in a given year, perhaps they get ‘x’ million dollars more from the State, part of which they could kick back to airlines. This is one incentive to create interventions to improve facilities and equipment. There is also one other important incentive…

2. Every 5 years, when the Port publishes its big plan, the airlines could petition communities for an increase in operations–similar to the way public utilities petition the state for rate increases (By the way, most people don’t seem to know that under state law, the Port of Seattle is considered a public utility). If the Port and airlines demonstrate that they are able to fly more and still stay under the initial DNL and emissions cap, they win. But they have to prove they can do this by working on step #1 each year–ie. by continuing to incrementally lower the DNL and emissions tonnage. Put simply, as they become more green, they make more money.

(The reader may have noticed that this proposal also has one other very unique feature: for the first time it places the airport under a single element of community control: the number. Everything else remains the same.)

Another feature is that it puts the responsibilities for solutions to noise, emissions and capacity where they belong: with the Port of Seattle and the airlines. Until now, the public and the various government agencies have been wringing their hands trying to find solutions. But that’s not necessary. Just as with car companies and their fuel and emission standards, the Port and airlines would be free to develop innovations. In fact, they would be highly incentivized to be innovative; the faster they create quieter and cleaner systems, the more money they make. A win-win.

The only thing standing in the way of this sort of proposal is the notion that growth trumps public health. Every policy maker I have talked with thinks in terms of building more airports or installing new technologies. But these are ideas that will take decades to accomplish, all the while allowing the noise and pollution to increase, unabated, over the communities. The current system creates no incentives for the Port or the airlines to improve and puts the responsibility for change on the people least competent to make that change (ie. politicians).

I also believe that though airlines might initially scream bloody murder, they would not suffer as one might think. Having worked in Logistics, I am about 100% certain that they would find other ways to move people and cargo. They have decades of experience in dealing with these kinds of challenges. And remember, we’re not talking about shutting down Sea-Tac, we’re simply giving the airlines plenty of notice to develop other networks. And just like the car companies when fuel and pollution standards were developed? They would find a way. That’s American Ingenuity. I’m counting on it.

All that is necessary to start improving our health is to say “No Mas”. One thousand flights and no more. I believe that with this change in attitude; if we can stop letting the tail wag the dog, Sea-Tac can again be something that the surrounding communities can live with in harmony.

Coffee With Port Commissioner John Creighton

Posted on Categories Airport
Photo Courtesy: David Clark

Port Commissioner John Creighton held a re-election coffee in Burien this past Friday. I sat down with Burien City Council Member Debi Wagner and Seatac Council Members Peter Kwon and Kathryn Campbell plus several members from the Quiet Skies Puget Sound group of Des Moines, Seatac and Federal Way. For all my complaints about the Port of Seattle, I have to give the Commissioner credit: he took some pretty tough questions for two solid hours and with a friendly demeanor.

I wish more people could show up for events like these. The Port is the most powerful government agency most people know almost nothing about and if you do show up, you get to talk directly to someone who has as much power in government as any State Senator or Congressman or Representative.

I’m new at this so as I (mostly) watched the experienced people. My impression was mainly one of the Council Members was this: how much patience and perseverance it takes. For example, Debi Wagner has been fighting battles with the Port over pollution and noise for twenty years and yet she remains positive, friendly, constructive. I have a lot to learn.

Me being me, I did vent a bit, of course. 😀 And I did make a couple of proposals, the first of which was quickly shot down as bush-league non-starter, but I’ll tell you about it anyway because I’m going to keep working on it. The Port operates a dozen ‘official’ (and many other unofficial) noise monitors throughout the area from which they gather data on the loudness of airplane traffic. That is the source of the noise studies you may have heard about. But this data has not been updated in many years because it is only used for official environmental impact studies. I would like to see those noise monitors re-purposed now and I would like even more monitors added as far as Federal Way since the noise problem has obviously extended so much further south in the last few years.

What I propose is that the Port publish a web page something like the Tidal Charts that sailors use in spreadsheet format. But in this version the chart would show the average noise for each monitor on the hour for each day of every month, plus the number of flights during each hours. So for example, you might see that Woodmont had 22 flights averaging 54dbA on Tuesday July 11 during the 2PM hour while North Hill had 17 flights averaging 61dbA on Friday June 24 during the 6AM hour.

Uses? A couple come to mind. First, real estate. I think buyers should have useful ‘noise numbers’ when searching for a house. Currently even buyers savvy enough to look up the available (and outdated) noise data would not find it very useful. You can’t trust a single number. But if you had the charts I propose, you actually could comparison shop. You could easily see which neighborhoods were noisier during a given time period (and by how much). One objection I can foresee is that the Port numbers might be low-balled (ie. that their decibles might be low.) To which I reply, ‘So what?’ Because even if they are fudged, at least they are standardized. You’re comparing apples to apples (neighborhood to neighborhood) so for the purposes of comparison shopping its still useful.

Second use? I think everyone appreciates having a certain degree of control over their life. And the first step to having any control is knowing what is actually going on. Look, when someone gets sick, what is the first thing most people want to do? Try to find out as much information as possible. We have a right to have current loudness data–especially since the equipment is already in place. And again, even if the numbers are lower than we might think is ‘real’, at least they are standardized.

My other idea had to do with an off-hand comment Mr. Creighton made during the conversation. He said something like, ‘Should we be thinking more about buyouts?’ and I furiously raised my hand in a half-comical way. But as the meeting was breaking up I said to him privately, “I’d probably want a million dollars for something like that.” Since the Commissioner is a lawyer, my thinking is was along the lines of a settlement where I would want to be made ‘whole’. I wouldn’t want replacement cost for my house–which is all I’ve ever seen offered in such settlements.

Now my house is not worth anywhere near a million dollars, of course, but I don’t think I’m being outrageous, either. To find a house with the same quality of life and amenities as many of us have enjoyed in Des Moines–just with fewer airplanes? (In other words, life with the clock wound back just a few years) Realistically, that would cost a lot more than market value.

Now, do I ever expect such compensation to occur? I’m not holding my breath 😀 But everyone is always trying to quantify ‘mitigation’ and I think that’s the wrong question. The question for me is, “How much would it cost to make you whole.” And as we move down the road towards holding the Port and other institutions accountable for the damage they have done to our community, that’s the bar I’m looking at; not ‘mitigation’.


Posted on Categories Neighborhoods, Policy1 Comment on Downtown

The Des Moines Theater DowntownThe core of the Des Moines downtown is defined by the two traffic triangles on Marine View Drive, the ‘head’ being the entrance at the flag pole on Des Moines Memorial Drive and the ‘tail’ being the traffic light Kent Des Moines leading into Zenith. And when I moved here that length was anchored by two businesses: the QFC Grocery to the north and The Des Moines Movie Theatre to the south. Sadly, both are now gone since the recession and I think their absence says something about the state of our downtown. To me, downtown still feels like a bit of a patchwork. Sometimes it doesn’t feel like we’ve still truly recovered. Many business remain, but some shops seem hobbled and a few are still boarded up.

The Des Moines Movie Theater was, like all local movie houses was kind of funky and shabby (was it ever). But I have fond memories of Saturday nights with popcorn in hand at the show. During those years I really felt like our downtown was coming together with new shops and a sense of community. But now? The fact that we still haven’t figured out what to do with that space since its closing speaks volumes for the current state of downtown.

As we can see from other recent theater closings throughout Puget Sound, icons like The Des Moines Theater are likely no longer viable. However, a unique and dynamic anchor must be a part of our downtown’s long term strategy. We cannot leave such a prime location to whatever business just happens to come along. We need a fresh plan for the area that will be a magnet for visitors and a gathering place for our residents.

As for the other end of Marine View Drive? Like many of you I was very upset when I heard that QFC was leaving. I felt that a series of very public meetings should’ve been held to discuss what could be done to try and retain QFC and failing that, to discuss the future of that space for the community. It all felt very sudden.

That said, I’ve heard good things from some locals about its replacement, The Dollar Store. However–I want to say this as carefully as I can–I have to say in all honesty that it would not have been my first choice for that key location. Again it has nothing to do with that business or its owners. It’s simply that for so many residents QFC was such a key part of the fabric of the community. It was our grocer and I still miss it.

The downtown is key to the developing a successful vision for Des Moines. And it is my view that certain anchor spaces are crucial to realizing that vision. These spaces are about more than just finding a buyer, collecting sales tax and hoping for the best. The community should have a voice in that. And then real urban planning skill need to be brought to bear to turn that into a fully realized vision.

Over time, too much of Marine View Drive has been left to the whim of one business or just plain happenstance. Sometimes it’s been good luck, but more often not so much. Given the unique gifts of our waterfront, it should be the policy of the city to develop the downtown thoughtfully and with a deliberate strategy. And at every step of the way we should engage the community fully in that process. Our goal should be to make the Des Moines downtown live up to the unique potential of our waterfront for residents, business and visitors.

Zenith Elementary

Posted on Categories Airport

I was at the presentation for the new elementary school tonight and it was exciting and a bit sad. I -really- like the old building on 220th and 9th Ave. and wish there was -some- way it could be kept.

I understand the convenience of having a new building ready to go and I well understand the (cough) challenges of the old building and the ‘portable’ but still. The location was -perfect- for all the young families moving into the core of old Des Moines. (sigh)

More problematic for -me- is the new location. I am slightly annoyed with the idea of so many children now having to take the bus to school, but even more so that the new building is sited directly under a flight path! Who thought -that- was a brilliant idea?

I am not sure if it is too late or not, but before ground is broken, we should make whatever last ditch efforts we can make to see if -any- changes can be made to the siting process.

Yes, the old school is definitely run down, but I’d prefer a run down school to one directly under a flight path that is expected to double in capacity in the next few years!

Have A Goal

Posted on Categories Airport, Policy

I did my little three minute speech with the City Council tonight and I tried to say something that no one else wants to say: Have a goal.

Of course, everyone seems to agree that there is a problem. But one thing you’ll notice very quickly is that no one in power will tell you is this: what is their GOAL. No one will commit to an end game. No one at the state, county or municipal level. Which I find troubling to say the least.

Let me start by saying that I am working for the next generation because I’ll be honest, I feel like there is little relief that I can realistically provide for -our- generation, ie. current homeowners and businesses. I’m fighting for our kids and for the long-term future of Des Moines because otherwise because there is no short-term strategy. Let me say that again: there is no short term strategy–except to move while the economy is still (relatively) good. And I am not moving.

So I believe we must have a goal. And as outrageous as this will sound, I know what my goal is: Reverse noise and pollution to levels -before- the recent runway re-surfacing.

Note that I did not say ‘slow growth’. I said, my goal is -reverse-. As audacious as that may sound, I believe the only truly sane course is to do what the federal government insisted upon years ago with auto makers: LOWER the amount of pollution generated by cars. Not slow the growth. Lower it. And a funny thing happened: Those demands, which seemed so ‘impossible’ at the time, magically came to pass.

Not to sound hyperbolic, but we -must- start demanding LOWER levels of overall noise and pollution or else our town will be forever lost. That is not hyperbolic, it is, in fact, the only rational course of action. If we do not act now, decisively, like the movie says, “Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon…” the only people who will want to live in Des Moines will be people with the least amount of money and thus the race to the bottom in South King County will continue.

We must reverse this trend. We must make Des Moines a destination; a place that young families, those who have choices, -choose- to move to. The irony is that, if you take away the Airport, the natural beauty of Des Moines makes it an ideal place for families. It’s the reason my generation, and many generations before me, moved here. Let’s keep it that way.

Parks And Recreation

Posted on Categories Policy

One of my favorite quotes of all time is from Dr. Martin Luther King, “Budgets are moral documents.” Governments can say whatever they like, but at the end of the day, it is what they spend money on that tells you what they really value. In my view, a great Parks and Recreation system should be near the top of the list of a city like Des Moines. But if you look at the facts, our city does not have a great track record for investing in our children and seniors. We too often rely on the (great) generosity of private donors to prop up programs that our city should be doing. We can do better. A lot better.

As a new generation of young families move into our city we need to provide them with programs that educate and enrich their children. We need to make Des Moines a place that parents feel great about raising their kids.

The Airport

Posted on Categories Airport

Where do I begin? I have a lot to say on this topic, but I think we can all agree that Des Moines has not been treated fairly by either the Port Of Seattle or the FAA. I believe that we need to work towards two goals:

First, we neeed to place a hard cap on flights and that cap needs to be significantly lower than the current number. This idea seems so outrageous to every other politician I’ve mentioned it to that they always come back with a reply like, “Well, we need to build another airport first.” or “We need to move the cargo to another airport first.” Basically, every other leader will only discuss limiting flights after there is another place to accommodate growth. That is not what I’m saying. What I’m saying–and I want you to hear this clearly–is that I want to cap flights right now, whether there are other places for the overflow to go or not.

I view the airport like a for-profit swimming pool. The pool can only safely accommodate 1,000 people so there is are regulations to limit the number of swimmers to 1,000. If the owner of the swimming pool has more potential customers? Tough. Because we’ve determined that it’s not safe to try to fit them in. That’s what regulations are for: to keep people safe. The airport, like our swimming pool, has too many customers and new customers will simply need to wait until another swimming pool can be found.

Secondly, we should be compensated by the Port of Seattle for costs to our health, to our property, and to our businesses. Remember: every plane that travels through our skies is more money for someone else and at our expense. So we should be exploring a per operation fee for Des Moines. This money to be used for mitigation and to cover the medical expenses for those who develop the kinds of cancers and respiratory issues known to be caused by airplane emissions.