A three-year state effort to pick a site for a new major commercial airport in the Seattle region, by this summer, has been grounded. A House bill approved by the Senate this week (April 12) will reboot the effort as a study without a deadline. That means abandoning the three potential sites in Pierce and Thurston counties that had sparked furious community opposition.
HB 1791, authored by Rep. Jake Fey, D-Tacoma, and a Moses Lake Republican, creates a Commercial Aviation Work Group to investigate the expansion of existing airports and potential locations for greenfield air facilities. It will replace the Commercial Aviation Coordinating Commission (CACC) created in 2019.
The bill removes the June deadline for coming up with site choices for a new major commercial airport. Amid the delays, the bill requires the work group to report annually. The bill also excludes expansion of airports in King County, or sites that would conflict with operations at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Pierce County. It expands the panel to include more community and environmental members.
Lawmakers have been wrestling for decades over how to address the growing demand for air travel and the capacity constraints at the region’s major airport, Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
Demand for take-offs 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.
The bill’s backers, while acknowledging the looming capacity crunch, said the CACC’s work was a failure, reflected by the near-universal political, military, tribal, and community opposition to the Pierce and Thurston County sites identified by the commission. Rep. Fey said the commission wasn’t adequately funded, was too narrowly focused, and its work hampered by pandemic restrictions.
Fey and other supporters said the state should instead step back and do a more comprehensive look at (for example) potential of new aviation technology, expansion of regional airports, and rail. That includes broadening the voices who are involved in the decision-making process and giving the study adequate funding.
Ports and business groups generally endorsed the bill. Airlines stayed on the sidelines, although they will have a huge stake in eventual site decisions.
“Asking for a site hasn’t worked,” said Sen. Marco Liias, D-Everett, during floor debate. “We need to figure out a path forward to ensure we have adequate capacity to move people and goods in and out of the state, and respect communities who have legitimate concerns.”
Sen. Karen Keiser, D-SeaTac, whose 2019 legislation created the CACC, did not take the rebuff lightly. She called the new work group “doomed,’’ and said it will only prolong the years of state and regional inaction in developing new aviation facilities. “Mostly, we’ve held on to a firm state of denial,” she said. “I hope [the work group] comes up with some new facts and ideas. But I don’t hold my breath.”
The bill passed easily, 31-17, and now heads back to the House for concurrence on a minor amendment.
Fey’s bill was an acknowledgement of the political reality around airport siting today. If the new panel is funded adequately and does its work well, it can contribute to building community consensus on one of the biggest challenges facing the state in the coming decades.
Even with a preferred site, however, no agency exists today with the authority or the money to manage the environmental review, to design, to build and to operate new facilities. Very soon, the state will have to come to grips with the imperative of executing the vision of a new airport.