WA lawmakers kick hunt for major airport site far into the future

Long delays at general security lines at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport last September meant lines out to the parking garage for a period. As Sea-Tac nears its capacity, this may become more frequent unless a nearby community volunteers to be the site of a new airport. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)

Rural residents in the three locations in Pierce and Thurston counties identified as possible sites for a new airport larger than Sea-Tac Airport can rest easy: No airport is coming their way.

Gov. Jay Inslee on Monday signed into law a bill that eliminates a state commission that produced the shortlist of potential locations. A plan to recommend a single site by next month is also now dead.

After a ferocious backlash from the communities at the three shortlisted sites and at another near Enumclaw in King County studied separately, all four locations are now off the table. Each was a so-called "greenfield" site without an existing airport.

Yakima emerged an option as objections grew to the westside sites.

Warren Hendrickson, chair of the Commercial Aviation Coordinating Commission, created in 2019 to select a new airport site, said "not a single city, county, or port, no government agency nor any sovereign Indian nation has supported any of the three greenfield sites.

"You add to that the public outcry on what the personal impacts would be for those residents and businesses that live in or close to those areas, and I think the Legislature recognized that this is something that can't go any further," Hendrickson said. "I think they recognized the political realities."

The CACC was supposed to submit a report with its final recommended site by June 15. In a letter to the Legislature Monday, Inslee said "that report should reflect the findings of the Commission that they do not have a single site recommendation at this time."

The bill Inslee signed, sponsored by state Reps. Jake Fey, D-Tacoma, and Rep. Tom Dent, R-Moses Lake, replaces the CACC with a new, more broadly based working group charged with studying the state's aviation capacity needs and producing annual reports on progress — with the first due in July 2024.

Tellingly, this new body has no mandate to recommend specific locations and no deadline to make any decisions.

Further indicating the radical shift away from the previous plan, Inslee vetoed a section of the bill that directed the new working group to simultaneously consider both building on a new greenfield site and expanding existing airports.

In his letter to the Legislature, Inslee stipulated that "it is important for the state to first fully consider increasing capacity at existing airports throughout the state, excluding SeaTac, before it considers siting a new airport."

In short, the search for a brand-new airport location seems to have been pushed way out. 

Rob Hodgman, previously Washington state Department of Transportation's senior aviation planner and the agency's lead staffer on the airport site search, said that the proposed Enumclaw site was found to be unviable on further study because of overlap with Sea-Tac airspace approaches.

With the CACC efforts now ended, he's concerned the new study group will "do a yearly report that could go on for quite a number of years."

"Meanwhile, the clock is ticking and Sea-Tac is getting closer and closer to full capacity," said Hodgman, now airport director at Yakima Air Terminal. "We're behind the timeline already, and we could likely get further behind. We're going to have some undesirable consequences."

A public backlash

For Washington, an airplane manufacturing state, aviation is an essential thread in the fabric of the economy.

It provides tens of thousands of direct aerospace jobs and vital global transportation connections for all the state’s businesses in this geographically isolated corner of the country.

Current plans under development to expand both Sea-Tac and Paine Field in Everett will enlarge their capacity from about 50 million annual passengers pre-pandemic to approximately 67 million by 2030.

However, by 2050, air passenger traffic in the region is projected to grow to 94 million.

The CACC was set up to figure out how to address that capacity shortfall of 27 million annual passengers. Ultimately, it came down to a search for a site of about 3,100 acres that would support two commercial airplane runways.

Steve Edmiston, who on the CACC represented the interests of Western Washington residents, said he's dubious that even the full-planned expansion of Sea-Tac will go through because of increasing concern about the environmental impact of both noise and air pollution on communities around that airport.

"It's an emergency if we want to have capacity to find it somewhere else," Edmiston said. "It's going to be very, very difficult to find any community that wants this."

"I don't know where that where that leaves us," he added. "It creates the possibility of slowing everything down."

Once it was publicized last fall, the CACC's identification of three sites in Pierce and Thurston counties created a vociferous public outcry in those rural areas.

Until then, partly due to the pandemic, the work of the CACC since 2019 had flown largely under the radar. But publication of the CACC maps identifying large circles where an airport might be sited brought immediate attention.

None of the affected communities bought into the argument that the airport would bring jobs and an economic boost to the area. Instead, they focused on the detrimental impact on their rural lives.

On Monday, Michelle Horaney, public relations lead for the Stop the Airport coalition that organized the opposition, heralded the campaign's success.

"We are happy that greenfields are off the table," she said. "The focus now is on the expansion of existing airports."

She said some members of the coalition will ask to join the new working group to try to influence future decisions.

Rep. Fey, the legislation's sponsor, said the CACC was stacked largely with aviation professionals and that the new working group will have a much broader base, with people who come from different interests.

"Otherwise, we could be stuck with a recommendation that the aviation industry likes but the rest of the population hasn't been convinced of the necessity for it," Fey said.

Consequences of no action

Edmiston believes the CACC effort foundered because it was set up with a mission to nominate a site with the idea that environmental review would follow later, as has been the historical practice.

"What we learned from all of the communities who were ferocious in their opposition is that that isn't the way it's got to be anymore," he said. "We've got to have some assessment at the front end of our process with respect to the environmental and public health impacts that these communities will bear."

Edmiston described his position on the CACC as "sort of the Lorax speaking for the trees, if you will, at a table of industry folks," comparing himself to the Dr. Seuss character who advocated for a wise but unpopular change.

And yet, he said the work of the commission was excellent and shouldn't be thrown out. He said that the group studied every existing Western Washington airport between the Canadian and Oregon borders before concluding that a new greenfield site would be necessary to meet capacity needs.

He said one lesson was that locating an airport away from densely populated areas reduces the public health impact.

"We do not want to expand airfields over existing populations," Edmiston said. "My focus as a citizen rep was public health and the environment. We're just not going to get it right if we keep focusing on urban areas."

He feels therefore that the new focus on expanding existing airports won't work, and that, in the end, a new greenfield site will have to be identified.

"You do hope it's not just because we want to just kick the can down the road," he said, for otherwise there will be inevitable "mathematical consequences."

"If you believe in the market, then supply and demand will kick in and things should become pricier," Edmiston said. "Business will probably go elsewhere."

CACC chair Hendrickson, worried that the new working group has no hard deadlines, echoed that concern.

"Are we willing to live with the consequences of taking no action?" Hendrickson asked, citing the potential severe economic impact. "You have a maximum supply capability at Sea-Tac and Paine Field where demand will easily exceed it.

"Even if we started today, we will reach a point where we won't have the availability to meet the demand that will exist within 10 years," he added. "That will be painful.

"Are we willing to live with that if we're not willing to address this very, very difficult situation of where to site a new airport?" Hendrickson asked.


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