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Friday, September 22, 2023
Sept. 22, 2023

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Seattle needs a new Sea-Tac-sized airport. No one wants it near them.


SEATTLE — By 2040, Western Washington will need another large airport. State officials are studying where to locate one that covers more acres than Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

Without it, air travel will snarl and air cargo shipments stall as the region’s projected population growth pushes far beyond the capacity of Sea-Tac and Everett’s Paine Field.

The problem is, nobody wants a major airport anywhere near their backyard.

A state commission last month narrowed the search to a shortlist of three locations in rural Pierce and Thurston counties, and by June 15 must settle on a single site that it will recommend to the Legislature.

In a confusing wrinkle, the state Department of Transportation is also still assessing a fourth site. Just west of Enumclaw in Southeast King County, this location would eat up significant green space halfway between Seattle and Mount Rainier.

Public opposition to all the proposed sites from residents, elected officials and tribal leaders was immediate and virtually unanimous.

Jeremy Foust, whose dairy goat farm sits in the middle of one of two 6-mile-wide sites in Pierce County, would lose it all if the airport is built there. The state would likely push to buy out landowners to site an airport, which under state law is an “essential public facility.”

“This area is growing. They’ll need a second airport somewhere,” Foust said. “So it’s gonna happen in someone’s backyard.”

“But it’s not just your backyard. It’s your whole yard. And your house,” he added. “My livelihood, yeah, it would cease to exist.”

Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier said a major airport at either of the locations under his management “would irreparably harm the character of rural Pierce County.”

“We have infrastructure concerns, we have dramatic environmental concerns,” Dammeier declared.

Willie Frank III, chair of the Nisqually Indian Tribe, in a letter to the state Department of Transportation, wrote that the proposed sites are “simply not acceptable” because of the potential impact on the watershed.

Despite the opposition, the work of selecting an airport site will proceed.

Years of wrangling are ahead before the project can move forward. Lawsuits that will stall decisions are inevitable.

Already evident is a radical stance within the environmental movement that argues the flying we do today should be severely curtailed to curb greenhouse gas emissions and so opposes building new airports.

Ashley Little, an organic farmer on the edge of a proposed Pierce County location, is on the steering committee of an effort to block the airport.

“We are facing a climate catastrophe,” said Little. “I really don’t think airlines are the mode of transport of our future.”

Rob Hodgman, senior aviation planner at WSDOT, in an interview put it succinctly: “Nobody wants it.”

“I live in Thurston County. My house is directly under what would likely be the flight path. I certainly understand how people feel,” he said. “But it’s concerning there is such widespread opposition to a new airport when the handwriting is on the wall.”

“You cannot stop population growth. A new airport is necessary,” Hodgman said, then added wearily: “Whether the state can move forward is another matter.”

Projected air traffic growth

Washington is an airplane manufacturing state. Boeing and its suppliers provide tens of thousands of jobs, both blue collar and white collar, an essential part of the fabric of the region’s economy and culture.

Beyond that, air transportation oils the wheels of the state’s nonaviation businesses and provides this geographically isolated corner of America ready connections to the rest of the world.

The state Legislature in 2019 appointed the Commercial Aviation Coordinating Commission to advise on a new airport.

Its 14 voting members overwhelmingly represent aviation and airports — “people with subject-matter expertise,” says Hodgman — joined by a couple of regular citizens and one lobbyist for environmental interests. The 17 nonvoting members include more aviation representatives, city planners and state politicians.

An analysis providing independent data to the commission estimates that current plans under development to expand both Sea-Tac and Paine Field 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 annual passengers. That’s a capacity shortfall of 27 million annual passengers.

In addition, air cargo traffic through the region is projected to more than double from 610,000 tons per year pre-pandemic to 1.4 million tons in 2050.

To accommodate that growth, the commission proposes that the state complete the expansion of both Sea-Tac and Paine Field and build a new airport on undeveloped land — a “greenfield” site.

Options presented include a single runway with a 2,400-acre footprint, about the same size as Sea-Tac; two runways with a 3,100-acre footprint; or three runways that would provide capacity far beyond 2050, with a footprint of 4,670 acres — 87% larger than Sea-Tac.

The only place with room for such an enormous project — which will be surrounded by highways, hotels, rental car facilities and other infrastructure — is a rural area.

“The closer you get to the population, there’s just no room to build an airport,” said commission Chair David Fleckenstein, who is director of the aviation division at WSDOT.

A 2021 baseline study by the Puget Sound Regional Council estimates that closing the 27 million annual passenger gap through 2050, enabling population and business growth, will add $31 billion in economic activity and 209,000 jobs to the region.

Looked at another way, those figures are what could be lost if growth is curtailed, and businesses and individuals opt to relocate.

Hodgman said that “without a greenfield site, this region has a major transportation problem.”

Dammeier, the Pierce County executive, said that when first presented with the possibility of an airport in his region, “I was not absolutely against it on its face.”

“When you put all the support infrastructure around [a new airport] and all the economy and the hotels and all that stuff, that does provide jobs,” Dammeier said. “But it also just magnifies the disruption to that rural community.”

Balancing growth and impacts

The proposed airport came out of nowhere for Foust, the goat farmer.

“My neighbors can’t even get an environmental permit to do a second bathroom in their house,” he said, amazed at a proposal that would pave over thousands of acres, and add enormous urban infrastructure and sprawl.

Foust, 45, raised in the Eatonville area, bought the 5-acre Left Foot Farm in 2009 and has built up a remarkable enterprise.

He sells raw goat milk, goat milk soap and chicken meat in farmers markets around Seattle. He rents out three cabins on the property through Airbnb, enticing people from Seattle and Portland who want to spend time on a farm.

And each year he hosts dozens of young people who come to work on the farm for room and board, part of the Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms program. Over the past decade, about 900 WWOOFers have passed through his farm.

While a yearly struggle to keep going is part of the tough business of running a small farm, he, his partner and their four sons now face more uncertainty.

“I don’t think I could replicate this in a location that would make sense for me and my family,” Foust said. “You just pray that you get enough value in your home to be able to possibly resettle somewhere else and change your life.”

“I have to continue to live. My family does,” he said. “It’s just, what does that look like, and how? That’s the scary part.”

Broader community concern focuses on deterioration of the environment and the rural lifestyle.

In a letter of protest, the Muckleshoot Tribal Council told the commission it is “deeply concerned about the environmental impacts” and the potential negative effect on tribal businesses.

The Thurston County Board of Commissioners asked legislators for support in rejecting a new airport to “maintain the quality of life and character” there.

County Manager Ramiro Chavez said the projected population growth and the need to add air travel capacity must be weighed against the environmental and cultural impacts “that absolutely will change the nature of Thurston County forever.”

“It’s a balancing act as to what we value,” Chavez said. “We value the long-term quality of life and the environment all of us enjoy here.”

Dammeier in Pierce County noted that the county has a comprehensive land-use plan developed explicitly to restrain creeping urban sprawl.

“That’s a critical rural area that we have been safeguarding by state law,” Dammeier said. “Now all of a sudden, they want to plop a major commercial airport down in the middle of it.”

King County a fourth option

Beyond the attention drawn to the state commission’s shortlist of three possible sites, under the public radar a King County location remains in play.

This site figures in a parallel airport capacity assessment conducted by WSDOT that’s separate from the commission study.

WSDOT is developing an update to the Washington Aviation System Plan, the state’s premier long-range planning tool for air transport. At the center of the plan is the need for a new airport.

An initial analysis used by both the commission and WSDOT identified 10 possible airport locations. As these were evaluated for a series of operational, cost and environmental factors, a Southeast King County site showed up as the one with the fewest downsides.

On a series of charts for each site with green, yellow or red blocks for each metric denoting whether the site scored well, OK or badly, the King County site was the only one among the 10 without a single red block.

Still, the commission was barred from putting it on the shortlist because the law that set up the commission explicitly excluded consideration of a location in any county “with a population of 2 million or more.” Legislators, in short, told the commission to take King County off the table.

That enrages Pierce County’s Dammeier. “That says the process is a political one, not a valid assessment of needs and options,” he said. “We cannot trust this process to be fair.”

However, while the commission cannot recommend that King County site, WSDOT is continuing to consider it.

“That site is uniquely well-postured. I cannot in good conscience not continue to look at it,” WSDOT’s Hodgman said.

In a statement, King County Executive Dow Constantine’s office avoided the hard no of the Pierce and Thurston County officials, yet was still dubious about the prospect of a new airport in his domain.

Constantine spokesperson Chase Gallagher said the executive “hasn’t had a chance to review all the information yet but is highly skeptical that Enumclaw has the appropriate infrastructure to support a new airport without fundamentally altering everything that’s great about the area.”

Some residents, and even a member of the state commission, have speculated that perhaps the best solution might lie in putting the new commercial airport at McChord Field, the airstrip at the center of Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

Unfortunately, that’s a nonstarter.

Hodgman said that when WSDOT proposed placing only commercial cargo operations there, sharing the airfield with the Army’s Chinook helicopters and giant Air Force C-17 transport planes, “We got strong pushback from the military. We were told it wasn’t an option.”

Another more radical suggestion — move JBLM to Moses Lake and convert McChord Field to an entirely commercial airport — was flatly dismissed by Don Anderson, former mayor of JBLM host city Lakewood and currently on the board of the national Association of Defense Communities.

“The military does not want to move their premier power projection point on the West Coast,” Anderson said.

“Airport of the Future”

The political aspect of the airport siting decision is most stark in the debate over environmental concerns.

The latest definitive scientific study estimates that aviation contributes a net 3.5% of total human-induced climate impact. Though that’s relatively small, as air traffic grows it could become more significant.

The industry is focused on new technology solutions to reduce emissions. But some who see an existential crisis in climate change demand more radical action: humans should reduce their flying.

Little, who uses no fertilizers or pesticides on her farm in Pierce County, contends building a new airport is “moving in the wrong direction” and “very much not in line with the views of Washington voters.”

“I would challenge that we need it at all,” Little said. “If we don’t want to see the worst environmental impacts come to fruition, we have to make changes, we have to make sacrifices, we have to get uncomfortable.”

She said we should restrain population growth and severely curtail flying.

Asked what alternative transportation is possible for the Pacific Northwest, which is so remote from much of the rest of the country, Little admitted that she has no definitive answers.

She suggested high-speed rail, which at least exists elsewhere in the world, and also mentioned Elon Musk’s “hyper tunnels,” which are largely hype, with only a few short-distance tunnels built.

This belief that aviation should be reduced is already affecting the industry in Europe and restricting airport expansion there.

Similar arguments will inevitably surface in the Seattle area as the debate over building a major airport plays out.

The Commercial Aviation Coordinating Commission seems intent on heading off such criticism by insisting that the new airport will be designed as an “Airport of the Future,” with elements keyed to reducing emissions.

A commission paper on this concept lays out a vision of an airport hosting electric, hybrid-electric and hydrogen-powered aircraft, as well as conventional aircraft powered by sustainable biofuels.

The concept also includes a landing pad for urban air taxis, presumably flying in from downtown Seattle.

Yet except for sustainable aviation fuels, it’s unrealistic to expect mass transport from any of these futuristic concepts before 2050. Even the required ramp-up of sustainable fuel production will be difficult to achieve.

No-action alternative

Fleckenstein, director of WSDOT’s aviation division, insists nothing is set in stone.

“Everyone totally recognizes that meeting demand could come with undesirable impacts,” he said. “So there’s a balancing point between you get this much gain out of it but what have you lost?”

“The commission is definitely not focused on meeting demand at all costs,” Fleckenstein said.

He said some of the commission’s discussion has centered on whether some but not all of the air traffic growth should be accommodated. Indeed, aside from expanding the existing airports at Sea-Tac and Paine Field, Fleckenstein said, “It’s always an option to do nothing.”

“But there’s trade-offs,” he added. “It may mean that people locate in different places. It may mean that businesses locate in different places.”

In other words, a stalling of this region’s growth.

Hodgman, the WSDOT official closest to the project, said the extent of opposition to the new airport could well slow down the process, or even bring it to a “screeching halt.”

However, he expects the new airport plan to resurface when flying out of an overcrowded Sea-Tac becomes increasingly untenable and businesses choose to locate elsewhere.

“This will be hard all the way through,” Hodgman said. “But once the public is five to 10 years down the road and recognizes how hard it is to travel, it will come up again.”