Noise vs. Jobs

County voters may be asked to pay for a sound-attenuation program around D-M—and incentives to keep Raytheon happy

Critics say that the presence of a few F-35 Lightning II aircraft at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base might negatively impact the community. On the other hand, military supporters hope to attract more defense-related jobs to Tucson.

On Friday, June 17, the Pima County Bond Advisory Committee heard a brief presentation on a proposed aerospace and defense corridor cluster. Part of this Tucson Regional Economic Opportunities (TREO) proposal would provide Tucson's largest private employer, missile-maker Raytheon, with land and transportation incentives.

In a memorandum, County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry estimated how much the incentives would cost: The bill for short-term transportation projects could be $13 million, with another $17 million spent on longer-term work. About $5 million would also be needed for land purchases to prevent encroachment on Raytheon's southside facility.

Larry Hecker, chair of the bond committee, says a subcommittee will look into this proposal.

Hecker says the subcommittee may also consider a residential sound-attenuation program around Davis-Monthan. A similar, much-praised program has been in place for years around Tucson International Airport (TIA). Funded by TIA, it provides expensive soundproofing for nearby homes.

Davis-Monthan has never had such a program, but Pima County voters may be asked to fund one during the next bond election. Hecker says he hopes that vote can happen in 2013, but admits that because of the poor economy, it might not be until 2014.

For all county residents know, that may be around the time when the Air Force finally gets around to conducting an environmental assessment on the impacts of Operation Snowbird at Davis-Monthan. (See "More Planes!" Feb. 17.) For training missions of a few weeks in length, this operation brings into Davis-Monthan various types of aircraft which fly hundreds of sorties in the Tucson area on a year-round basis.

The assessment was scheduled to begin in January 2011; today, the start date is up in the air.

Scott Hines, community liaison at Davis-Monthan, recently wrote members of a subcommittee of the Military-Community Relations Committee (MCRC), a group that meets regularly to discuss Davis-Monthan issues. He stated the assessment "is on hold pending the coordination and approval of the plan governing the (Operation Snowbird) mission."

Repeated attempts by the Tucson Weekly to find out from the Pentagon when the Air Force would be approving the assessment went unanswered.

It is known that the Air Force plans to utilize a 2002 study as its baseline of information for determining "environmental comparison, analysis and assessment." The 2002 report shows just more than 39,000 annual arrivals and departures of all aircraft using D-M. Of those, A-10 aircraft made up about three-quarters of the activity.

From a noise perspective, the A-10 is relatively quiet. At 2,000 feet, it is shown in the 2002 report as producing 94 decibels of sound on the ground. An Air Force chart indicates that is similar to the noise produced by a heavy truck at 50 feet.

According to Lockheed Martin, the primary contractor for the brand-new F-35 Lightning II, the aircraft may replace several planes, including the A-10—and the next-generation fighter aircraft is anticipated to be much louder than the A-10.

For that reason, the Tucson Forward lobbying group opposes the F-35 coming to Tucson. It believes the plane could be using Davis-Monthan as part of Operation Snowbird.

Tucson Forward also opposed the F-35 being based for training purposes at the Air National Guard's operation at TIA. Last year, the Air Force was considering five different training sites for the F-35 and looking at the environmental impacts on each. Even though that study is still underway, the Air Force months ago announced its "preferred alternative" was to base the F-35 for training purposes at Luke Air Force Base, west of Phoenix.

Before that decision was made, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords expressed support for the F-35 being based for operational purposes at Davis-Monthan. But Giffords' spokesman, C.J. Karamargin, wrote in a March 2010 e-mail: "She recognizes that the A-10 mission will remain intact at D-M until at least 2025."

In order to retain the thousands of jobs currently at the base, is an eventual transition to the F-35 at Davis-Monthan in the community's best interest? Or should an emphasis be placed on transforming Davis-Monthan into a base focused on research and development?

Several members of the MCRC were contacted for their viewpoints.

"Research," answers Bill DuPont, of the Colonia Solana Neighborhood Association, located northwest of D-M. "It will probably bring more permanent jobs than the F-35."

DuPont adds that while the exact noise levels of the new plane are uncertain, the impacts on the environment could be substantial.

Robert Medler, from the Tucson Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, notes that the F-35 isn't slated to go to Davis-Monthan. "We should go after anything looking for a new home—like aircraft maintenance—that will provide more jobs."

Les Pierce, from the Arroyo Chico neighborhood, states: "We should plan for both, but build toward research and development." Pierce doesn't think the F-35 will come to Tucson, either, but adds: "Perhaps as a fallback, we should keep our eye on it."

Priscilla Storm, of Diamond Ventures, Inc., believes the community began transitioning to noisier planes years ago when City Hall adopted aircraft-noise contours around Davis-Monthan based on the sound of loud F-16 jet fighters, and not the quieter A-10. Because of that, she thinks Tucson should now begin "the very difficult and controversial community dialogue" on the future mission of Davis-Monthan.

As to whether research or more flight training should be pursued for the base, Storm responds: "There're both important for the viability of D-M."

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