Even as Seattle-Tacoma International Airport soars back toward record passenger volumes, the state’s rebooted effort to solve the region’s looming air-transportation crisis is getting a slow start out of the gate.
The governor has yet to appoint anyone to the new Commercial Aviation Work Group (CAWG), a 19-member body authorized by the Legislature last session to study the state’s aviation needs. The new group replaces the Commercial Aviation Coordinating Commission (CACC), charged by the Legislature in 2019 to recommend a site for a new airport. That effort predictably triggered a firestorm when it identified three potential new airport sites in Pierce and Thurston counties, and the earlier commission recently threw in the towel.
The new CAWG has a less specific, less toxic mandate: “to provide a comprehensive investigation of airport capacity in the state and the best way to address aviation needs in the context of overall state transportation needs in the next 20 years using independent verifiable data.”
But if the original group was given too ambitious a goal, concerns are emerging that the new panel lacks the resources and direction to come up with answers to the urgent questions around regional airport capacity, notably how to deal with SeaTac’s being overwhelmed with users.
The new legislation sets no criteria, work plan, or deadlines for delivering an investigation of the state’s aviation needs, other than an interim report next summer. About $2 million has been set aside for its work through 2025.
And like the previous legislation, the new law essentially prohibits study of sites near Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Pierce County. Further, Gov. Jay Inslee, while approving creation of the new panel, vetoed a lengthy section that specified criteria for evaluating new airport sites and community outreach.
The outgoing chair of the Commercial Aviation Coordinating Commission is pessimistic about the new group’s direction. “My candid concern about the work group is that their only requirement is to make an annual report to the Legislature. They don’t have a deliverable, they don’t have a specific mandate, they don’t have the authority to make any decisions,’’ lamented Warren Hendrickson, Olympia Airport senior manager and a long-time aviation professional, at a recent Port of Seattle commission briefing.
The Seattle port commissioners, who run Sea-Tac but so far have stayed on the sidelines in the debate about a new airport site, now seem poised to take a more active role in finding solutions. The state’s airports were strong advocates of the transportation study effort, citing the jobs and economic activity generated by airports.
“It is going to require leadership at the executive level,” said Commissioner Toshiko Hasegawa. “We should have gotten started 10 years ago if we were truly going to meet the needs of… our projected growth and demand.”
The debate comes against the backdrop of a nationwide explosion of travel demand in the aftermath of the pandemic. As every traveler knows, Seattle-Tacoma International Airport is straining to keep up. Year-to-date passenger volume is up 13.7 percent compared to 2022 and the airport had its busiest day ever on July 24.
Future projections are even more daunting. Demand for take-offs and landings in the region is projected to DOUBLE by 2050 from over 400,000 to more than 800,000 per year. This growth is expected to produce a regional gap in service by 2050 of about 52 million annual passengers – equal to all the passengers served at Sea-Tac in 2019.
Paine Field’s terminal in Snohomish County, which today can handle about 1 million passengers, can expand but at the most could handle only about 4 million passengers a year, only a fraction of the capacity needed in the future.
If the collapse of the CACC proved anything, it is that there is no statewide consensus about the state’s role in air transportation. Any new “greenfield’’ site in Western Washington will face tremendous community push-back, and many environmentalists oppose any airport expansion as a further climate threat.
Yet failure to add air capacity risks more air congestion, higher ticket prices, fewer travel choices, and lost economic opportunities.
At the Port meeting, commissioners appeared to share Hendrickson’s frustration.
“I am very disappointed this whole thing is going back to the drawing board,’’ said Commissioner Hamdi Mohamed. Residents near Sea-Tac Airport will bear the brunt of more air traffic if new capacity is not provided, she said. “There’s clearly a consequence if there’s no action.”
The Port is spending billions on improvements within the existing main terminal, but its plans to build a new terminal to the north and add 19 new gates have been pushed out from 2027 to 2032. Beyond that, the airport runs out of space. The Port Commission has yet to approve those expansion plans, which are still undergoing environmental review.
Commissioners echoed a frequent criticism of the previous Coordinating Commission’s work, namely that the state must do a better job engaging with the public directly, as well as looking at new technologies and alternatives, rather than building new airport facilities alone.
Hasegawa favored exploration of one such alternative, high-speed rail connecting Vancouver/Seattle/Portland. The state’s congressional Democrats are seeking $200 million in federal aid to study the concept. Rail can provide valuable options for relatively short distances. However, it’s not a complete solution to the capacity short-fall.
The port commissioners also appeared ready to wade into the controversy over the potential joint use of Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM) in Pierce County as both a military and commercial airport. The 2019 state legislation specifically ruled out any consideration of the military base – or any new site in King County – for a new commercial airport.
There is also near-unanimous Pierce County opposition to any change at the military base or new airport construction. Opponents include tribes, the Pierce County Council, the state’s federal delegation, Air Force and Army leaders, as well as the Port of Tacoma, Seattle’s partner in the Northwest Seaport Alliance.
Even so, in their final report, some CACC members advocated moving the military air operations to Eastern Washington and converting the military airfield to commercial use.
Commissioner Fred Felleman said JBLM is where the region’s growth is headed, has the right facilities, is close to I-5 and has space to expand. JBLM “is the only place that makes sense,’’ he said. Hasegawa urged more discussions with federal leaders “so that JBLM can be an active part of the conversation.”
Port Commission President Sam Cho says the state needs to move with greater urgency, but with open minds about potential locations for new facilities – including Eastern Washington – that could be connected by rail, and also inspecting new technology opportunities. The state may find a willing partner in the federal government, which has set aside billions for infrastructure investment.
“This is a golden opportunity for us, if you look at it from a 10-thousand-foot perspective, and this political BS is really getting in the way,’’ he said.
The bill’s prime sponsor, Rep. Jake Fey, D-Tacoma and Transportation Committee chair, calls the new legislation a compromise, if an imperfect one, among the many competing issues around the air-transportation controversy. He believes the work must first focus on assessing transportation needs before landing on specific sites.
Fey said the JBLM controversy risked stalling the entire study effort. The base is the county’s largest employer. The aviation capacity effort “is going to be hard enough without throwing that into the mix,” he warned.
The 2019 commission itself was criticized as weighted in favor of aviation interests, wasn’t funded sufficiently, and was hampered by the pandemic. Fey’s bill broadens the membership to include more community representatives and other stakeholders.
He admits surprise at Inslee’s veto of the section dealing with site selection and suggests the Legislature may return to the issue next session. “I get that people feel we are going slow. They are concerned about that. But work like this needs to be done well,’’ he cautioned. His goal is to find consensus on how air transportation fits into a broader assessment of the state’s mobility needs, before choosing airport sites.
With understatement, Fey said, “this will be a very difficult decision at some point in the future.”