Sylvia Hickey has been waiting nearly a decade for new windows and other measures needed to help drown out the noise of jets flying over her El Segundo home.
Hickey is one of thousands living near Los Angeles International Airport who took advantage of a residential soundproofing program offered by the city and funded by LAX and the FAA, a sort-of peace offering for decades of noise impacts.
Many residents say they can’t even carry on a phone conversation or hear a loud television when planes fly over. But they were willing to wait it out, many for more than a decade, to receive notice that the work would begin.
Hickey changed her summer vacation plans to accommodate the contractor’s planned work this summer. Then, a couple weeks ago, she and dozens of others received sudden notice that they would be waiting indefinitely.
Due to excessively high contractor bids and a looming deadline by the FAA, the city told nearly 200 residents that the noise-mitigation work will have to be canceled unless the city is granted an extension.
“We’re being bamboozled, and I’m angry,” Hickey said. “I signed a contract earlier this year, and there were never any ifs, ands or buts. It was ‘This will be done.’ And we signed on the dotted line.”
The El Segundo City Council last week called a special meeting to discuss the mitigation program, which has been in place since the 1990s. Five years ago, the Federal Aviation Administration moved the boundary denoting eligibility for the program, dramatically reducing which homes were eligible for the funding.
The city reached an agreement with FAA and LAX officials in 2010 to recognize homes just south of the boundary that no longer qualified under federal standards, if the improvements were made solely with LAX funding.
Sensing that it wouldn’t be able to meet an initial deadline, El Segundo was granted a rare extension by the FAA, giving the city until Sept. 30, 2015, to complete the soundproofing work for those homes in the exception area, known as the “yellow area.”
Now the city needs another extension.
Bids for the mitigation work came in at up to 103 percent higher than estimates, staff said, and had to be rejected based on FAA regulations.
“This is a blindside to the city,” said James O’Neill, the city’s residential sound insulation program manager. “This is nothing that we were expecting.”
The city already knew it was up against a tight deadline to get the exception homes finished, but staff had worked aggressively to get design plans ready for 750 homes to be completed this year. Then the bids came back.
Now that the excessive bids have been rejected, the city does not have time to try to secure new bids and complete the soundproofing by Sept. 30, O’Neill said. And the FAA has made clear it will not grant any further extensions.
“The situation is pretty daunting,” said Coby King, a lobbyist for the city. “FAA has made clear to us that they have no intention of bending further on the issue. ... The idea of changing the FAA’s mind on any of these deadlines is going to be difficult.”
That means any uncompleted homes in the yellow area of town would be out of luck. The FAA would not allow the city to use grant funding to complete the work.
“I’ve been waiting 13 years for these windows that I don’t have yet,” one resident said. “Thirteen years is an awful long time. Why hasn’t it been done? Where has it fallen between the cracks? If we have signed contracts and are supposed to have work done by the end of 2015, then, by God, we should have it.”
City Manager Greg Carpenter said staff tried to get an explanation from contractors on why bids were so high, but the city can’t explain the pricing and why it jumped so astronomically.
Mayor Suzanne Fuentes assumed it’s because other cities with soundproofing programs, such as Inglewood, also are racing against the clock to get the work done.
“Everyone knows there’s a deadline,” she said. “So there’s a sense of urgency. It’s like everyone preparing for a hurricane in Florida and the price of materials goes up.”
Council members directed staffers and the public to reach out to local Assembly and Congress members to see if they could persuade the FAA to change its mind, as former Rep. Jane Harman had years earlier.
But an FAA spokesman said the agency has long been lenient with El Segundo and other cities. Since the 1980s, guidelines for receiving the soundproofing work included living within a determined boundary area and the completion of interior noise level testing to ensure the decibels are above 45.
“However, the FAA found that the guidelines weren’t being consistently applied throughout the system,” said Ian Gregor, FAA spokesman.
The FAA sent out a letter in 2012 reiterating that process. That year, El Segundo was granted the exception and an extension for homes that had previously been included in the program only based on boundaries.
Any projects with ongoing construction after this September will have to meet the full requirements, Gregor said.
That means even the homes not in the yellow area that have remained eligible — the ones closer to the airport — now will have to undergo internal noise testing.
“If some of the homes are particularly well-insulated already, they may not qualify after that test,” Carpenter said.
But many residents said last week they had already paid to make preparations in their homes for the soundproofing, including installing new sliding glass doors, making improvements to their attics and the like.
“This has been promised to us. We signed contracts,” Jennifer Gardner said. “You can’t promise this and then not live up to it.”
For now, the city’s only hope appears to be its state and federal lawmakers, and leniency from the FAA.
“We can come up with a number of arguments,” Assistant City Attorney Karl Berger said. “Whether or not you’re successful is another question. We’re fighting federal law.”