Frustrated by the Federal Aviation Administration and the Port Authority’s apparent indifference to the noise complaints of their constituents, the Senate and Assembly passed legislation last week, requiring the Port Authority to conduct a noise and land-use compatibility study of the areas surrounding the borough’s airports and make the results public by June 1, 2014.
However, there is still a long way to go before the bill — which Gov. Cuomo has yet to sign— becomes law. The Port Authority’s jurisdiction includes both New York and New Jersey, so the legislation will not take effect until a similiar measure passes in New Jersey and Gov. Christie signs it as well.
“We’re looking to force the Port Authority and the FAA’s hands into doing the study because of the impact on our communites,” Assemblyman Ed Braunstein (D-Bayside) said. “We’re hoping to have them come out with accurate information and do the necessary noise remediation.”
According to the FAA, the Part 150 study is a “voluntary undertaking” which an airport manager can have the Port Authority conduct to identify areas that are impacted by excessive noise, which would then be eligible for federal mitigation funding.
According to a 2012 report from the Government Office of Accountability, the FAA has given out $5.8 billion to 481 airports for residential and public building noise insulation since 1981, but most of the funding goes to airports that have conducted voluntary noise compatibility studies. Such a study has not been conducted in New York City, but the Port Authority received $134 million between 2005 and 2011 to soundproof schools near the major airports.
The measurements used are called DNL contours, which refer to the average noise level in an area. The maximum noise level allowed is 65 DNL.
According to Port Authority data from 2009, there are 36,179 people and 12,080 homes within 65 DNL of JFK airport and according to 2008 data, there are 4,400 people and 1,500 homes within 65 DNL of LaGuardia Airport.
Within the past year, coalitions have developed in affected communities throughout the metropolitan area to demand change.
“In Southeast Queens, we’re bombarded by noise from planes going in and out of JFK,” said Barbara Brown, the chairperson of the Eastern Queens Alliance. “Victims of the noise deserve mitigation and the only way to get it is to do a study.”
Brown said that she has been advocating for this study for over a year, in addition to protesting the expansion of JFK’s Runway 4L22R.
“They can’t keep expanding and increasing the noise without trying to do something for the people,” Brown said. “JFK is in an urban area, so the Port Authority needs to account for the fact that people live immediately adjacent to the airport.”
Brown noted that in Springfield Gardens, Rosedale and Laurelton the planes fly low enough over homes, schools, churches, parks and playgrounds to make pictures fall off of walls. She added that 65 DNL is still very high and that the FAA and the Department of Defense are the only agencies to consider it an acceptable average. She said the funding requirements should be lowered to 55 DNL.
“People deserve to enjoy their homes and space,” she added, “and we believe we’re getting more than our fair share of the noise.”
Residents of communities across the Nassau border feel similarly, according to Assemblyman Ed Ra, (R-Long Island), who co-sponsored Assemblywoman Michelle Titus’ (D-South Ozone Park) bill.
“Airplane noise has a tremendous impact on the quality of life in Long Island, Queens, and some parts of New Jersey,” Ra said. “We started off on our own separate roads and by getting together we were able to move the bill and now we hope to join forces with New Jersey.”
Meanwhile, in New Jersey, state Senator Teresa Ruiz (D-Newark) has introduced legislation calling for the Part 150 study, which is scheduled for a committee hearing and an identical bill sponsored by L. Grace Spencer (D-Newark) is making its way through their assembly. Ruiz said that there may be a senate hearing on the bill in late summer.
According to Ruiz, people in Newark have complained about noise in the past and that the noise volume has increased. She said that she is working to schedule a meeting with the FAA to discuss the reasons for the increase.
Ra pointed out that many of the affected communities are not accustomed to the level of noise they receive now, and that the recent uptick is due to changes in federal procedures.
In Northeast Queens, residents are furious about changes in departure procedures from LaGuardia Airport Runway 13. The NextGen program, which incorporates GPS systems, requires pilots to hit waypoints in the sky, so planes consistently fly over the same houses.
Braunstein said that he hopes that passing this legislation “will lead them to realize that they have to noise proof thousands of homes. Then they will finally reach the conclusion that there’s a better way to spread out plane traffic.”
Senator Tony Avella (D-Bayside) and Braunstein object to the FAA making changes without doing a full Environmental Impact Study, as federal law requires. Instead, the FAA issued a categorical exclusion, declaring that the changes would not adversely impact the surrounding communities.
Avella noted that they made this call by relying on computer simulations without placing noise monitors on the ground.
New York has fewer than half of the number of noise meters as other metropolitan cities. JFK and LaGuardia combined have about 14, while Chicago’s O’Hare airport has 33.
Avella and Ra said that there is already money in the Port Authority’s budget to conduct a study, but that the Port Authority is reluctant to do so because of the costs of mitigation or the possibility that they will have to reduce air traffic.
A Port Authority spokesman refused to address this claim and said that the agency does not know how much the study will cost.
“The Port Authority has collected data on aircraft noise in local communities surrounding its airports for decades to help the Federal Aviation Administration determine if steps can be taken to minimize the impacts. The agency will continue to comply with all federal and state regulations regarding noise monitoring and tabulating residents’ complaints for the FAA’s review,” the Port Authority said in a statement.
Dr. Arline Bronzaft, who serves on the Mayor’s Council on the Environment as a noise expert, said the Part 150 study is a start, but that the negative impacts of noise on health, particularly sleep problems and cardiovascular disease, and quality of life are already well-documented.
“We already know the noise is bothering people,” she said. “I feel that we have enough literature, let’s move on with this. We’re not saying ‘let’s get rid of planes,’ but let’s build quieter engines, change the routes, and install better windows.”
Bronzaft said the study’s threshold of 65 DNL is already high and that the emphasis on averages fails to account for outliers, such as one loud plane at 6 a.m., which can disrupt a good night’s sleep.
Bronzaft also spoke of the diminished power of the Environmental Protection Agency, since the Reagan administration shuttered the Office of Noise Abatement and Control, leaving citizens at the mercy of the FAA, “an agency that really does not care about the people on the ground.”
“It’s like all the elected officials have been asleep at the switch,” Avella said. “This is the first step to bring them into line. We’re sure it’s going to show an impact. Then they’ll have to mitigate it.”