Minneapolis Airport Runway Party Invites Censure

Three Democratic lawmakers criticized the Metropolitan Airports Commission for daring to throw a $150,000 party to inaugurate the new north-south runway.

It's just 8,000 feet of concrete, but it has spawned questions about noise, clowns and its necessity.

All that, and the new $785 million north-south runway at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport doesn't even open to planes until Oct. 27.

On Thursday, three Democratic lawmakers criticized the Metropolitan Airports Commission for daring to throw a $150,000 party to inaugurate it.

"The fact that a party is being held is insensitive and wrong, and we think it ought to be canceled," said Rep. Dan Larson, DFL-Bloomington.

The runway has been under construction since 1999 and is needed "to provide adequate runway space,'' said MAC spokesman Pat Hogan. It developed out of the legislative battle in 1996 over whether to expand the airport or build a new one in Dakota County.

At the time, the airports commission and Northwest Airlines predicted they would need another runway to handle an expected surge in airplane travel through 2010. Those projections have been accurate, and even Northwest's recent filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection will not change the necessity for the runway, Northwest spokesman Kurt Ebenhoch said.

Northwest has 540 departures a day from the airport's three runways. In contrast, Northwest has 573 daily departures from its hub in Detroit, which has six runways, Ebenhoch said. Adding the fourth runway, with three of four running parallel for simultaneous use, will cut delays in takeoffs and landings during poor weather, he said.

Even with Northwest's financial problems, no one thinks the runway was a mistake.

"Somebody is going to be flying airplanes in there, whether it's Northwest or a discount airline,'' said Sen. Ann Rest, a New Hope DFLer who was on the committee that recommended expanding the current airport. "People aren't traveling less.''

John Adams, a geography professor at the University of Minnesota, said while there are a number of uncertainties about the airline industry and people's travel habits, the new runway is still a good investment. The metropolitan area's population could grow by a million people in the next 20 years.

The new runway, which is part of the larger 2010 plan that has poured $3.1 billion into new gates, parking and other airport improvements, will handle 37 percent of departures and 17 percent of arrivals by 2007, Hogan said.

It also will spread out the noise to Bloomington, Eagan, Apple Valley and Burnsville as planes take different routes to and from the airport, Hogan said. Some places plagued by jet noise will hear less.

The noise spread doesn't make suburban folks happy, and even officials in Richfield, which long has suffered conversation-disrupting airplanes, foresee an increase in noise.

Pam Dmytrenko, assistant to the Richfield city manager, said the new runway will create more low-frequency noise, a problem different from the loud roar of the jetliner. It's the sound you feel, more than you hear, and it makes the house shake, the windows rattle and your bobble-head doll collection fall off the mantel, she said.

Unfortunately, the Federal Aviation Administration does not recognize low-frequency noise, so there is no federal money to help residents, Dmytrenko said. The city is working with the airports commission to relocate people affected by the noise, but it will take years with the money available to move residents from 200 single-family homes and 230 apartment units that qualify, she said.

Hogan said airport officials are working to get federal money to help mitigate some of the noise at those low-frequency spots.

But the MAC isn't working hard enough, according to several DFL state lawmakers. And the lawmakers think having a party to celebrate the opening of a runway while residents near the airport are suffering from noise pollution is "tactless."

Making matters worse, lawmakers from districts near the airport said, the MAC isn't just holding a simple ribbon cutting — they're throwing a massive party Saturday and paying for most of it with public money. The $150,000 event, including three bands and a 5-kilometer run, will be paid for through $40,000 in corporate contributions and $110,000 in airport concession fees.

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