Take Five with Zach Brandon: Losing F-35s, 115th would be like losing Oscar Mayer

Approval is where the smart money lies, but several Madison alders have asked the military to reconsider the potential placement of F-35 jets at Truax Field in Madison. Madison’s potential selection still has to go through the final stages of a selection process, and following the publication of an environmental-impact statement related to the jets’ deployment, the projected noise levels remain the most contentious issue, but not the only one.

That placement of the F-35, which is necessary to maintain Truax Field as the base of the 115th Fighter Wing, was the subject of a public hearing last week at Alliant Energy Center. Amid displays about the economic impact of the 115th Fighter Wing, various noise-contour maps, and protesters outside the facility, we spoke to Zach Brandon, president of the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce, about the merits of Madison as a future home of the F-35.

IB: If you’re explaining to a skeptical citizen, especially someone who lives on the east side, about why you think the economic benefits of hosting these jets outweigh any inconvenience they might have with noise abatement and so forth, how would you explain that?

Brandon: There are things that we know and things that we think we know. The things that we know are the base has been here for 71 years, it has always had a flying mission, and that flying mission today generates $100 million of economic output. It employs 1,200 people on the north side of Madison, it provides $1 million in tuition reimbursement for Air National Guard members who are based here, and it provides fire, EMS, and bomb-disposal services at no cost to the airport. That’s money that would either have to be absorbed by county taxpayers or, more likely, by additional fees on our flights and our tickets.

What we expect is that there will be some upside in new jobs. The EIS says 64 new jobs but we don’t know exactly what that [total] will be. But there will be a new group of highly trained, high-tech, well-paid positions that are coming to Madison in order to maintain and administer these aircraft.

We also know there will be 400 construction jobs that will be created in order to build out the new facility. No new runways are necessary. It’s just the new facility, and that facility represents about $100 million of new construction.

And so, when you look at all this in totality, it’s about protecting what has been here because over the life of the jet, it’s $3.3 billion of economic input. And when you think about it as if it were a company — we look at is as though it were an Air Force base — but if we looked at it as if it were a business, and the business was saying ‘we may leave and you’ll lose 1,200 jobs,’ that’s the same size as Oscar Mayer when it closed. It’s the same size as Janesville’s GM plant when it closed, and it’s the same size as Kenosha’s engine plant when it closed. So, when you think about the impact those closings had on those communities, that’s why it’s important.

“If we looked at it as if it were a business, and the business was saying ‘we may leave, and you’ll lose 1,200 jobs,’ that’s the same size as Oscar Mayer when it closed.” — Zach Brandon, president, Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce

The other side is what we don’t know — the noise-contour maps, which are imperfect and done by computers. These are not real-life modeling. They do not measure any known sound. It’s a model based on a computer that has inputs that are designed to have the maximum potential impact. We know that they have historically overstated this. So, if you look at the last EIS, the last environmental impact statement that was done in 1996 by Dane County Regional Airport, it said that 1,585 people would be impacted by building a new runway. They built a runway. If you look at the 2008 noise-contour maps from the airport, zero were impacted. So, either the EIS and the inputs overstate the reality, or we are experienced in how to mitigate sound. That sound can be how they take off, where they take off, and the speed in which they leave the airspace.

But you don’t have to look very far to see a community that has been dedicated and committed to mitigating noise. Just drive down the interstate and you’ll see the berms and the walls. Drive down the new Verona Road thoroughfare and you’ll see 40-foot walls that have been built to protect Allied Drive from sound. And you go by train tracks on the near-east side where trains no longer blow their whistles because we’ve invested millions of dollars to help protect those residents, even though they moved next to railroad tracks that have been there for 200 years. We actually helped protect their quality of life.

And so, when you look on par, you know what the economic baseline is. There is upside to that economic baseline, and if there is sound that is beyond what we have today, which is not known, this community has a track record of mitigating it. When you put those things on par, making a decision with imperfect knowledge, you have to believe the tilt goes toward the economic benefit because that has broad effect across this entire region.

IB: What have you been told about how homeowners would be helped and who’ll be funding noise mitigation?

Brandon: This EIS is designed to measure whether the Air Force made the right decision. That EIS will be thrown out, and a new EIS will be done when the jets get here. So, it will be based on a real-life model. As you can imagine, in order to pay people to have sound mitigation, the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration], which is the agency that administers the Part 150 grant program, will want to know 100 percent that you’re in a noise contour. They will want a real-life sample of noise in order to say whether you’re in that noise contour. And so, what will happen is this [initial EIS] document will be put on a shelf, a new document will be done that will measure actual sound, and then if people are in the noise contours, then the FAA grant program will start. What that mitigation looks like is, well, you can look at any airport in the world and see the different types of mitigation. But speculating on what home and where, it’s too early to know and then maps won’t be drawn for years.

IB: How could this proposal to base these planes here be sunk? Would the city formally have to forcefully come out and oppose it based on public input? How would that happen?

Brandon: There is only one person who makes the decision and that is the secretary of the Air Force. Certainly, those closest to the federal government could have an impact, but the entire Congressional delegation, the entire Wisconsin delegation, supports this basing. Every single congressperson and both senators [Tammy Baldwin and Ron Johnson] support this basing.

Update: On Sept. 17, the Madison City Council passed a resolution on a 16–3 vote with one abstention asking the Air Force to reconsider potential plans to place F-35 jets at Truax Field. U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, whose district includes the Madison area, also called for additional noise testing, according to an article in the Wisconsin State Journal.

Brandon (continued): Just like in Burlington, Vermont — that was the first National Guard base — and those jets are coming in a matter of weeks. [U.S. Senator] Bernie Sanders, the most liberal member of Congress, supports it. [U.S. Senator] Patrick Leahy, a very liberal member of Congress, supports it. At the end of the day, the Air Force is going to make a decision on what’s best for the defense of our country, and they are going to take a lot of things into account, and they do take noise and impact on the environment into account. But only one person makes that decision after weighing all the public input, all of the studies, all of the measurements that they’ve done on how much it costs to fly here, how much does it cost to live here. They’ve done all those analyses. They take all the input from the public but unless there is something that indicates you have made an incorrect decision on the initial designation — the initial designation [of Madison] has already occurred and right now it’s about a final designation — tonight is about informing the secretary of the Air Force about whether the Air Force’s initial decision to make a basing here is the right decision. And I don’t see anything in the report that I think will change the Secretary of the Air Force’s mind.



IB: Do those grants go for a variety of noise mitigation purposes, both in terms of treatments on public property and to the level of individual homeowners?

Brandon: As I said, there is the avoidance of the creation of sound. They take off differently. They fly differently. And that, generally, fixes a large part of it. But as far as improvements to homes, it’s multifaceted, but there are window upgrades, there are insulation upgrades, there are guarantees that if you can’t sell your home for market rate, they will give you the difference. There is a multitude of things that can be done, but there is a process to go through. These [noise-contour] maps don’t show you who is and who isn’t going to be mitigated because, historically, what is shown in the EIS on the initial basing and what is shown in actual sound, there has been a reduction in actual sound. And so, fewer people are affected, and in the case of Madison’s last EIS, it went from 1,585 people affected to zero.

IB: Are these F-35s really louder than a commercial jet?

Brandon: Well, there are two ways they measure sound. So, there is sound that is measured by the instant. It is what do you hear in that moment? But Air Force jets are louder than commercial jets. Not significantly louder, but they are louder. And then there also is what they call day-and-night averages. Most of the things that you hear about with this EIS, when we hear people talk about a 60-decibel noise contour or 65-decibel noise contour, that is based on an average of one year, averaged out over 24 hours, and it’s given a number. Those are very close and this EIS takes into account those things, too. If you just go to Google and search sound, you’ll see that a leafblower is 110 decibels. There is no precise calculation on what an F-35 is, but …

IB: We’re not talking about a level that could cause vibration in a home or crack plaster or cause broken plates.

Brandon: No, the 65-decibel level is the level at which people become annoyed with sound, not where sound becomes harmful. Those are two different things, and when the report says that these homes are incompatible, that doesn’t mean uninhabitable. It means that it recognizes that you are in a corridor near an airport, and that you’re coming in knowing what’s in that home when you get there. There are plenty of people around Chicago O’Hare, which is surrounded by people in a 65-decibel area, and they live there, and they live their lives and enjoy their lives, and they are able to afford that housing. And it’s not to say that if you’re in the 65-decibel level, that’s too bad. What I’m saying is that this community has always stepped up in order to help mitigate sound, and there is plenty of evidence. You can just drive around town.

So, we believe the economic impact warrants the basing. We believe the future upside makes it even better. We believe that the sound becomes a risk, but we think that risk can be mitigated by new and better modeling and the mitigation that we know is going to be brought about.

Editor’s note: Even after the Sept. 12 public hearing, the public can still comment on the basing of F-35 jets at Truax Field by visiting the following website, www.ANGF35EIS.com, through Sept. 27. Madison has been identified as one of two preferred sites, and a final decision is expected early in 2020.

Related story: Air Force says F-35s would impact over 1,000 homes

Another view: F-35 project is the military-industrial complex at its worst

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