Weighing in on a divisive Madison issue that also split alders in their decision, the Madison City Council approved a resolution early Wednesday morning asking the Air Force to reconsider housing F-35 fighter jets at Truax Field.
The east side air base is a top contender for an Air Force proposal to host two squadrons of F-35 fighter jets. A draft environmental impact study (EIS) highlights the possible local economic gains of the proposal while also detailing a host of harmful effects to those living close to the base.
Alders debated between two resolutions into the early morning hours before ultimately voting 16-3, with one abstention, on an amended resolution that asks the Air Force to reconsider the selection of Truax Field as a preferred location until and unless the findings of the EIS are shown to misrepresent the significant environmental effects.
The approved resolution did not oppose F-35s being based in Madison outright.
Alds. Rebecca Kemble, District 18, and Grant Foster, District 15, initially co-wrote a lengthy resolution responding to the environmental impact study and opposing the selection of Truax Field as a preferred location.
“The people who will shoulder the burden of the harmful consequences of the deployment of the F-35s are overwhelming telling us — their elected officials — they can’t take any more noise pollution,” Kemble said.
Then, Ald. Barbara Harrington-McKinney, District 1, and six other alders sponsored an alternate resolution with lighter language than the resolution co-authored by Kemble and Foster. Harrington-McKinney ultimately abstained from voting.
The alternate resolution asked the Air Force to reconsider Truax as a location only if the final environmental impact statement “does not provide strategies to affirmatively mitigate the noise and/or reduce the number of training flights.”
“I was shocked honestly that these seven alders would put something together that basically takes the significant amount of work that Ald. Kemble and I put into specifically responding to this EIS and essentially took the teeth out of it,” Foster said.
When the City Council voted to choose between the two resolutions, alders voted 10-10. Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway broke the tie, making the alternate resolution the main motion for alders to consider. Alders amended the alternate resolution to include some language from the one drafted by Kemble and Foster. Alds. Syed Abbas, District 12, Zach Henak, District 10, and Kemble voted against the resolution.
Harrington-McKinney said it was “not possible” to get all alders in agreement on one F-35 resolution and that the alternate proposal requests “accurate, measurable data with statistical accuracy” to inform policy makers.
Ald. Keith Furman, District 19, supported the alternate resolution and argued that the binary discussion of either being for F-35s or against the Madison community is “unfair to the process.”
“I think it’s too early and ineffective just to say no to F-35s at this time,” Furman said.
Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce president Zach Brandon said the Council's decision "sent a message of support" to the 115th Fighter Wing.
"The long-term health of the 115th is vital to our economy and our community," Brandon said.
The adopted resolution only expresses the view of the City Council. The Air Force will ultimately make the final decision on where the F-35 program will be located.
According to the draft report, the basing of F-35s in Madison would disproportionately affect minorities, low-income residents and children. Kemble said the “cost is just too great.”
“We can’t abandon those residents to those terrible conditions, and it’s not true that the decision is already made and it’s also not true that people can’t fight these decisions,” Kemble said.
Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, urged City Council members to take a strong stand against the F-35 proposal. Taylor represents some of the neighborhoods like Darbo-Worthington that would be affected by the squadrons at Truax.
“I do see a corporate powerful interest in movement pushing this forward,” Taylor said. “I would just urge you all to please resist that.”
More information needed
Madison’s Truax Field is one of five locations under consideration by the Air Force to host two squadrons of F-35 fighter jets, which would replace the current F-16s that are nearing the end of their flight life and currently flown by the 115th.
In December 2017, the Air Force announced that Truax was one of two preferred sites for the new jets, along with Dannelly Field in Montgomery, Alabama. The Air Force selected Madison as a preferred site before the results of the environmental impact statement were complete.
If Madison is selected, it would take about three years to complete construction on projects necessary to house the F-35s. Fighter jets would begin arriving in April 2023, and the Air Force estimates the project would be “mission capable” by 2025.
“If selected for the F-35, we will have the same number of aircraft, a similar number of maintainers, possibly one more pilot,” Lt. Col. Charlie Merkel said. “The resources to achieve a significant increase in the annual number of flights is not there.”
Merkel also said the new jets would not have the wiring or hardware for nuclear capabilities. However, Merkel said he did not know if the jets could be retrofitted for that use.
While the Air Force’s proposal promises to bring new jobs and economic benefits to Madison, it would also disproportionately affect minorities, low-income residents and children, according to a draft Environmental Impact Statement.
The draft estimates that the construction required to support the F-35 beddown at Truax Field would bring in between $90 and $120 million of new construction activity, creating 315-420 construction jobs.
It also says that more than 1,000 households around the airport would experience an average daily noise level above 65 decibels, which is slightly quieter than a vacuum and louder than conversation in a restaurant. This measurement represents the daily average noise level from all air traffic in the air, including commercial flights.
However, for a few seconds during takeoff the noise from a jet taking off could reach 110 decibels, which is like listening to a live rock music concert.
Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway noted this contradiction in a statement Tuesday, highlighting the Air Force’s findings that there may be an increase in noise levels while also very little change in “sound exposure level.
She said she is “disappointed in the U.S. Air Force and Air National Guard” for what she called a “failure to provide adequate information.”
“Based on what we know — and don’t know — today, it’s very difficult to evaluate the true impact of this project on the Madison region,” Rhodes-Conway said.
Due to the lack of information, Rhodes-Conway said the Air Force and Air National Guard should re-evaluate the the selection of Truax Field as a preferred location if the final environmental impact statement does not respond to concerns identified by the draft statement and an analysis conducted by the city.
If Madison is not selected, Merkel said the same operation at Truax would continue. The Air Force estimates that the F-16s have about 10 years left of use, which is an overestimation.
‘Cost of public health’
At Tuesday's lengthy meeting, punctuated by a fire alarm that caused a brief building evacuation, dozens of speakers addressed the City Council on the proposed resolutions.
Almost all of the speakers opposed the jets, underscoring worries about how the noise from the planes will affect the health of neighborhood residents, children and people with disabilities.
“I’m asking you to say that we are worth it,” Deborah Lofgren said. “We are not worth having these planes come here.”
Others said they feel Madison is too residential for the proposal and that the fighter jets are not an appropriate use for the city.
“I am not against anybody, and I definitely support people who are willing to sacrifice for this country, but I don’t think that needs to come at the cost of public health,” east side resident India Viola said.
Annie Potter, an east side resident and East High School teacher, is concerned about how louder planes will affect schools.
“I cringe to even imagine what effects increased noise and frequency will have on our students,” Potter said. “It flies in the face of the efforts of hardworking Madisonians who labor to close the opportunity gap for our most vulnerable populations.”
Kathlean Wolf, a veteran who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, demonstrated how she tightly presses her hands to her ears when the jets fly overhead in her Brentwood neighborhood.
“There is no such thing as habituating to this noise,” Wolf said.
Few supporters of the Air Force’s proposal were at the meeting but several wrote emails to the alders on their position. They argued that the proposal would be beneficial to Madison’s local economy and would support the military.
“This is the next generation of military defense to protect our great country. I understand there will be obstacles to work through but I believe it's a very positive opportunity for the city, state and country,” Dean Hackl said in an email.
Kait Gibbs contacted alders on behalf of her husband who is in the Air Force and currently serving in Afghanistan.
“I know him and his fellow airmen would love your support in housing the F-35s here in Madison so they can continue to do their part in protecting our country,” Gibbs said.
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