South metro residents are warily watching the skies today, listening to hear if the roar of jet engines overhead will disrupt their previously quiet neighborhoods.
The new north-south runway at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport is opening this morning, almost seven years after the $624 million construction project began. The Metropolitan Airports Commission lauds the new runway — and the increased flight capacity it ushers in — as an important regional economic engine, but for the people whose homes sit under the new flight paths, it just means more noise.
Those living in parts of Eagan, Apple Valley, Burnsville, Rosemount, Richfield and Bloomington are braced for a ramped-up racket when the planes begin to take off and land from new southern routes. They all want an answer to the same question: What will it sound like?
"A neighbor I work with is calling (today) D-Day," said Burnsville resident Ken Kosciolek, 40. "Everyone is quite concerned here. I'm hoping that it won't be too bad, but I'm worried it will be."
The new runway, which parallels Cedar Avenue, will add five flight paths over Eagan alone and handle a total of about 300 daily departures and 132 arrivals, the MAC estimates. In all, 37 percent of the airport's departures and 17 percent of its arrivals will use Runway 17/35, which will boost the airport's flight capacity by 25 percent.
The runway is the last step in a $3.1 billion update project launched in 1996 after the state Legislature approved the expansion of the airport, rather than the construction of a new, outlying facility in Dakota County.
"Clearly, there will be a change in people's lives," said Vicki Tigwell, chairwoman of the MAC, the public body that owns and operates the airport. "Having a busier hub translates into more planes, more planes translates to more noise. But the economic impact is dramatic."
It will take a few weeks for pilots and air traffic controllers to familiarize themselves with the new runway, but there will be little transition time, MAC officials said.
Tigwell predicted the south suburban noise levels will be unlike the "pounding" the city of Minneapolis has taken with air traffic. The newly affected residents live farther away from the runway, meaning aircraft overhead will be at higher altitudes.
Suburban and MAC officials spent much of the summer holding meetings to prepare residents for the expected noise from the new runway.
Although Frances Jareski, 79, of Burnsville attended one such meeting, she still worries about sleeping through the noise. She said she is staying put in the home she has lived in for 35 years, no matter how loud it gets.
"We'll just have to wait and be surprised. But the only way I'm going out of this house is in a 6-foot box," she said, laughing.
More than 1,000 Eagan residents flooded nine neighborhood open houses the city held this year.
In addition to those meetings, the City Council this summer hired Virginia-based firm Wyle Laboratories to set up noise monitors to gauge what sound levels were before the runway opened.
Mayor Pat Geagan said the city wanted to be backed by independent data should it decide to sue or lodge any complaint over the increased airport noise.
Curtis Aljets lives in south-central Eagan, between two of the new flight paths. Aljets, 59, joined the city's Airport Relation Commission this spring and has been working to educate residents and learn more about the noise impact since.
Wyle installed one of its noise monitors in Aljets' yard, and he said he is pretty comfortable with the expected impact.
"Obviously, the noise is not going to improve our quality of life," he said. "But overall, the airport is good for Eagan's economy. It's good for the metropolitan economy."
However, Aljets noted that his wife fears the new runway will reduce the value of their home.
Likewise, Kosciolek, of Burnsville, is expecting a mass exodus from his neighborhood when the planes start flying.
"I'm actually surprised the sales signs didn't already start popping up," he said.
In Apple Valley, officials have asked the MAC to bring in more noise monitors and review flight paths to make sure the noise is fairly dispersed. City officials also want a seat on the MAC's advisory noise committee.
"We're closely monitoring what's going on," Mayor Mary Hamann-Roland said.
The runway's opening — originally slated for 2003 — comes at a difficult time for the MAC.
The agency is embroiled in a lawsuit with the cities of Minneapolis, Eagan and Richfield over the cities' contention that the commission is not providing noise mitigation to as many homes as it originally promised. On Wednesday, Bloomington joined the fray by filing a lawsuit of its own against the MAC.
Northwest Airlines' bankruptcy looms as well. Despite the Eagan-based carrier's financial woes, Tigwell said, Twin Cities demographics justify the need to expand.
Minneapolis-St. Paul has been the world's busiest airport to operate with two principal runways. And air traffic at the airport, a Northwest hub, typically increases by about 3 percent per year, according to the MAC.
By 2030, demographers expect the metropolitan area's population will have exploded by 1 million new residents.
"Those people are going to want to get on planes to go places," Tigwell said. "But we do have to watch and wait a little bit, to see how Northwest comes out of this (bankruptcy). We believe, and they have indicated, that this will stay a hub."
Meggen Lindsay can be reached at email@example.com or 651-228-5260.
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