No one said it was going to be easy to find a home for a new primary commercial airport. Now the process of finding that home may be stuck on the runway.
Sea-Tac Airport, the Northwest’s leading airport, is rapidly running out of room to accommodate the rebounding growth in air travel. At the same time, Sea-Tac’s plans to add 19 gates, which would offer some short-term capacity relief, are far behind schedule.
Two years ago, the Legislature created the Commercial Aviation Coordinating Commission (CACC) with a mission to study and recommend a new site for an airport this year.
Driving the study are stark statistics: Demand for aircraft operations and landings in the region is projected to double by 2050 from over 400,000 to over 800,000 per year. This is expected to result in a regional gap in service by 2050 that is roughly equivalent to all the passengers served at Sea-Tac in 2019 – about 52 million passengers.
Yet with the capacity crunch looming, there is no consensus about where, how, or even why we should build another airport. That conflict is playing out in the Legislature, as the House and Senate are poised to battle over the future of the CACC.
The CACC’s chief advocate is Sen. Karen Keiser, a veteran SeaTac-area lawmaker, who is adamant that the state must move forward on choosing a site. “If we don’t meet the need, we’re going to be sorry,” she said. Pandemic delays and political conflicts delayed the CACC’s work, and now it is set to make a recommendation by mid-year.
But on March 8, the House passed overwhelmingly a bill drafted by Tacoma Rep. Jake Fey (D-27) and a Moses Lake Republican colleague that would eliminate the deadline for a recommendation, and also expand the body, add more community interests and public engagement, and widen the scope of options.
Fey, Transportation Committee chair, said the CACC as originally created was underfunded and doomed to fail. Noting the Pierce and Thurston County sites identified as potential locations by the CACC have drawn near-universal political, tribal, and community opposition, Fey said the state should step back and do a more comprehensive look at the state’s transportation needs. That includes broadening the voices who are involved in the decision-making process, suggesting the CACC was too influenced by industry interests.
Since the pandemic’s impacts on air travel are still playing out, Fey said, “We don’t know what the new normal is going to be.’’ Keiser argued Fey’s bill just postpones inevitable decisions. “It is just rearranging deck chairs on a sinking ship,’’ she said. “It’s not a fix.”
Against this backdrop of rising airport demand, the Legislature in 2019 commissioned the CACC. At least in part, the legislation also was driven by Sea-Tac area interests hoping to hold off future growth of the airport.
The CACC was required first to develop an initial list of six possible locations and send them to the Legislature by January 1, 2021, followed by its top two options by October 15, 2022. A single preferred location would be recommended by June 15, 2023. Expansion of any King County facility and any project that conflicted with military operations at joint Base Lewis-McChord were taken off the table by the legislation.
After months of study, the CACC’s current recommendations are to add capacity to Paine Field, assume Sea-Tac executes its current master plan for expansion, and assist other airports interested in pursuing regional commercial service. Regarding a new airport, the panel called for continued study of a two-runway greenfield (rural) site option.
Two locations in Pierce County and one in Thurston County are the three rural greenfield sites remaining under consideration for a new airport, out of the 10 that were analyzed by the state’s consultant. Why there? Airports are cogs in a nationwide transportation system; the logic of these sites is that they are relatively close to the state’s population and cargo centers as well as key transportation hubs.
Predictably, residents, county leaders, and tribes assailed the site recommendations on environmental and land-use grounds, citing the impacts to their rural communities and tribal fisheries. Many respondents rejected any expansion of the air system until the impacts could be mitigated.
A high-speed rail link connecting Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver, B.C., has often been suggested as a means of reducing the need for a new airport. Perhaps it could be a solution as part of a long-term regional rail system, but Alaska’s 15 flights and Delta’s seven flights to Portland each day are dwarfed by the more than 1,000 daily flights in and out of Sea-Tac.
Communities also criticized the make-up of the commission, which was heavy with government and industry representatives. These critics also complained about a lack of time for public input. Most observers agree the exercise was underfunded for tasks it was assigned, and the pandemic slowed its work considerably.
Sensing a political train wreck in the offing, Fey worked with other House members to fashion a compromise that would remove the deadline for a recommendation yet keep studying a broad range of options. Maybe a new airport isn’t the answer, Fey says. Maybe other local airports can play a bigger role. Calling Keiser’s bill “flawed,’’ Fey said his legislation is an effort to “look at our mistakes and try not to repeat them.”
The latest siting debate echoes the region’s earlier battles over airports.
The little airport in rural Bow Lake that opened just after WWII grew into Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. It became one of the fastest-growing airports in the 1980s and 1990s, when Sea-Tac shared in the explosion in deregulated air travel for the masses and our region’s booming economy.
As early as 1982, regional leaders saw a need to plan for expanding Sea-Tac, along with improvements to Boeing Field, Paine Field, and other smaller facilities. No action was taken, however, until 1988 when the Puget Sound Council of Governments, the forerunner of Puget Sound Regional Council, made the urgent recommendation to move forward on Sea-Tac expansion plans, improve feeder airports, and study development of a new regional airport.
By the time Sea-Tac’s two runways faced serious congestion problems, the airport was hemmed in by several communities dead-set against the prospect of expansion.
Sea-Tac’s third runway opened in November 2008 to the west of the main runways and requiring massive landfills. The legacy of 20 years of bitter and costly legal and political battles continues to color the Port of Seattle’s relations with its neighboring communities.
Completion of the third runway was never considered a long-term solution. As airlines increased domestic and international service to Sea-Tac since 2010 or so, the shortcomings of its single terminal became more pressing. The critical measure is the number of gates, which has basically been unchanged for many years.
Sea-Tac has rebounded quickly from the pandemic. It is a strong “origin and destination’’ airport, not a hub for passengers headed somewhere else. At the same time, its West Coast location positions it well for Asian service. Delta Air Lines, which is betting big on Seattle as its gateway to Asia, has long advocated for more gates. Alaska Airlines, in a pitched competitive battle with Delta, now is part of the One World Alliance with American Airlines, so it too is calling for added capacity.
Sea-Tac is spending billions to upgrade the main terminal, which will greatly improve the passenger experience. But no money is being invested now to add critical gate infrastructure. The Sustainable Airport Master Plan’s near-term projects included 19 new gates, but the planning has dragged on for years, bedeviled by exchanges between the airport and the FAA over planning studies and environmental review.
“Due to delays from COVID-19 and other factors,” the proposed opening of the Sustainable Airport Master Plan Near-Term Projects (SAMP NTP) has shifted from 2027 to 2032, the airport said. The environmental assessment was expected early this year but is now being pushed back to late 2024. Given the history of delays, that date can be viewed skeptically.
Fey’s bill sets the stage for yet another round of fighting in the Senate. SeaTac lawmaker Keiser, for her part, was sharply critical of Fey’s bill.
“We have a huge economic risk if we don’t expand our airport capacity in this state to match our growing population and economy. Sea-Tac Airport will be reaching its maximum capacity very soon, so something’s got to happen. Every potential location we consider has its positives and negatives, so ultimately we’re going to have to decide whether there’s the political will to push something through or whether we’re going to fall behind,” Keiser said. “I appreciate that this bill is continuing the process, but it’ll take more than just studies and work groups to solve this problem – folks are going to have to face the facts and make some tough decisions.”
Washington’s ports and airport, along with Alaska Airlines, have participated in the CACC but they are generally quiet about the recommendations so far. Airlines would insist that any new facility be close to their primary markets, and their support is critical as they will foot a large share of a new airport’s costs in landing fees.
Alaska said it supports the quest for more capacity, but it is focused primarily on upgrades in the near term at Sea-Tac and its regional Paine Field operations. “Alaska is participating in this discussion but defers to the Commission’s and ultimately the Legislature’s decisions in this area,’’ the airline said.
Port districts, which run many of the larger airports, also supported Fey’s bill. “Commercial air service and air cargo are economic drivers that keep our state connected to the world and that service must be maintained,’’ the Washington Public Ports Association said.
It may be that Fey’s bill was the only practical way out of the legislative dilemma over the siting commission. Depending on how the commission is staffed and resourced, and working without a deadline pressure, Fey’s bill could help lay the groundwork for these critical decisions.
But choosing a site alone is only one piece of the total airport-construction puzzle. Who would choose a site and green light such a mammoth project, and all the mitigation that it entails? No government body or regional agency has either the expertise or that power. One suggested solution is a new regional aviation authority.
As the clock continues to count down, the region may be doomed to endless rounds of debate and study. That would risk more congestion, deteriorating service, and higher ticket prices. The solution is for both the region and state to develop a strategy that drives to a decision about all these critical issues. Once again!