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Superhighways in the Sky

The FAA is burdening Bay Area communities and wildlife habitats with aerial freeways for jet planes. And even the National Park Service can't stop the noise.



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Citing pending litigation over the FAA's metroplex projects and NextGen, Gregor declined to be interviewed in detail for this story and declined to comment on the NPS's projections of noise increases at Point Reyes. He said in an email that in the past, flights from the north arriving to San Francisco and San Jose flew over Point Reyes, but that under the new system, the San Jose arrivals aren't going over the park.

But the NorCal NextGen procedures, he said, do include a new SFO arrival route that passes over Point Reyes — though he said there are other paths that are "further east," but declined to provide specifics. Asked about the frequency of flights over Point Reyes, an SFO spokesperson deferred to the FAA. (In the old system, routes to and from Oakland Airport generally did not fly over the park, and that hasn't changed with NextGen).

Given the FAA's vague noise measurements and the administration's refusal to answer basic questions, it's unclear how bad the noise impacts are at Point Reyes. As of recently, the FAA has adopted nearly all of the new NorCal Metroplex procedures, according to Gregor, but the NPS has not yet monitored changes in noise levels in the relevant wilderness areas.

When Rocchio and I visited the park recently, she said the jet noise was not nearly as loud or frequent as she had expected it to be given the FAA's data and the NPS's analysis. But without continuous monitoring, it's difficult to draw meaningful conclusions about the long-term impacts. (It was also a rare rainy day on our visit).

When we hiked in the wilderness area projected to see significant noise increases, we heard planes intermittently — some that sounded distant and a few that seemed louder and closer. We ran into a park ranger who told us he hadn't noticed an increase in jets, but who said he might have grown accustomed to the noise. In the morning, I heard consistent flight noise while at Limantour Beach on the southern coast of Point Reyes — in less than one hour, three or four flights that were loud enough to clearly distinguish over the sounds of ocean waves crashing nearby.

Rocchio said Point Reyes staffers also told her that the jets recently were so loud that a group of biologists visiting the park could not hear each other over the noise.

One of the most frustrating parts of the process for conservation advocates, the NPS, and Marin County residents is that the FAA not only approved an increase in noise pollution over sensitive wilderness habitats, but it also brushed aside proposals for a potential solution. That's despite the fact that experts have long argued that there is an achievable compromise in the region — one that would largely preserve the quiet of Point Reyes and return it much closer to its original natural state.

On January 11, 2001, Jane Garvey, the then-head of the FAA, traveled to Marin County to meet with local officials and announce a plan to provide some relief from the constant jet noise plaguing the community. "The economy was burgeoning [at the time] and people were doing a lot of flying," recalled Liza Crosse, administrative aide to Marin County Supervisor Steve Kinsey, who has represented West Marin County since 1996. "There was more commercial air traffic and there was more neighborhood concern about noise."

Kinsey, along with then-Congressmember Lynn Woolsey (D-Petaluma), helped pressure the FAA to consider changes to local aircraft routes that would decrease the noise in affected areas. According to reports at the time in the San Francisco Chronicle and the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, the FAA agreed to redirect some nighttime routes away from Point Reyes and Bolinas (a coastal town just south of the national park) and move the jets westward over the ocean. During her visit, Garvey and Marin County officials described the changes as minor shifts designed to provide an immediate reprieve, but emphasized that they were exploring long-term solutions to alleviate the noise impacts.

Weeks before Garvey's visit, SFO's Aircraft Noise Abatement Office released a detailed study of flights over Marin County that explored options for comprehensive solutions. One key recommendation was that aviation officials consider opening up a portion of the nearby offshore airspace for commercial jet use. The major obstacle was that the offshore airspace next to Point Reyes was — and still is today — a US military zone, which means the FAA doesn't have direct authority over the area.

For years, the Alameda Naval Air Station, before it was decommissioned in 1997, was the primary user of this Marin County offshore airspace, which includes two so-called "warning areas" typically used for military training exercises, according to the SFO report. Roughly twenty miles offshore from Marin County, there is also a coastal "Air Defense Identification Zone," which similarly carries restrictions for non-military air traffic.

The SFO noise report suggested that, although the existing restrictions clearly complicate flight patterns in the region, there were opportunities for the FAA to work with the US Department of Defense to open up military zones over the ocean for commercial jets. Crosse (from Kinsey's office) and McEneany (the Inverness resident who served on the Oakland Airport noise management group), both recalled that the FAA came close to establishing a long-term compromise that would shift flights offshore in 2001.

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