Skimping on aviation safety

The decision to ease development restrictions might prove stunningly short-sighted.

Next fall’s expansion of the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport will likely bring with it added safety risks, thanks to a 6-month-old decision by Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau only now becoming public.

Acting also as the state’s transportation commissioner, Molnau quietly eased long-time development restrictions that would have applied to land surrounding a new runway, now under construction. That decision, made against the judgment of many Minnesota Department of Transportation staffers and far away from the public spotlight, strikes a poor balance between economic growth and public safety.

The restrictions, meant to keep businesses and residences well away from airport runways, are eminently sensible, given that most plane crashes occur during takeoff or landing. Those restrictions should remain in place.

Molnau’s decision is undoubtedly driven by estimates putting the value of potential development in the area at more than $1 billion. Policymakers, hungry for economic growth at any cost, also point out that Minnesota maintains some of the most restrictive airport zoning requirements in the nation, going well beyond minimum federal standards. Molnau was technically within her administrative rights to make the decision; state law gives the transportation commissioner the authority to balance safety and economic concerns when setting zoning restrictions.

But aviation safety is a public question all residents have a stake in. No public announcement accompanied Molnau’s decision in the spring. She has since refused requests for interviews on the subject and has forbidden department staffers from answering media questions.

That’s not the way to govern in an age when public distrust of government is at an all-time high. Nor is this the right decision to make when the Twin Cities metropolitan area is growing and its chief airport is becoming a busier hub.

Molnau apparently made her decision in conjunction with a private consulting firm that assessed the risk of future crashes and the potential value of real estate development near the airport. That assessment reportedly estimated a low probability of a crash in future years. Those figures will turn out to be stunningly shortsighted should a plane ever crash near the new runway.