As anybody who has followed attempts to construct a new Interstate 5 Bridge knows, the United States is not very good these days when it comes to building things. Bureaucracy, a labyrinth of regulations and a contentious political climate unfailingly delay massive projects and drive up costs.
While Clark County and the I-5 Bridge have been at the center of this phenomenon for 20 years or so, the saga of a proposed international airport in the state provides local residents with a new perspective. Sometimes, it is easier to see the forest when you are not standing in the middle of it.
In 2019, the Legislature created the Commercial Aviation Coordinating Commission to explore possible sites for a new airport.
Seattle-Tacoma International Airport is the 11th busiest airport in the country, but it is expected to reach capacity by 2050. As KUOW reported this year: “A new airport would help take on commercial and cargo flights, and without it, the region is estimated to take a $31 billion annual economic impact from the shortfall in service. That means the pressure is on to find a location where a new airport could service the growing urban center of Western Washington.”
In September, the coordinating commission identified three possible sites: Two south of Tacoma in Pierce County, and one outside Olympia in Thurston County.
Last week, Gov. Jay Inslee signed a bill that will reset the efforts to build a new airport, establishing a new statewide work group to study the issue.
For Clark County residents, this is not an especially pressing matter. We have easy access to Portland International Airport, the nation’s 33rd busiest, and typically head south when we need to catch a flight. But the issue speaks to larger concerns about American infrastructure.
In general terms, Republicans in the United States have spent decades insisting that government is incompetent and incapable of efficiently devising and completing large construction projects. Democrats have countered — again, generally — that we can’t build until we have vast environmental and worker protections in place.
The result is a tangle that has led to generations of infrastructure neglect in this country. The solutions are complicated.
As Brink Lindsey of the Open Society Project wrote: “What is needed most is a change in ideas … On the right, this means abandoning the knee-jerk anti-statism of recent decades; embracing the legitimacy of a large, complex welfare and regulatory state. …On the left, it means reconsidering the decentralized, legalistic model of governance that has guided progressive-led state expansion since the 1960s.” It also means “reducing the veto power that activist groups exercise in the courts.”
Regardless of political leanings, not-in-my-backyard attitudes fuel opposition to major construction, contributing to a situation that has diminished our nation’s ability to do big things. Meanwhile, the costs of large projects continue to grow more rapidly than inflation.
Washington needs a new international airport, and it should be on the west side of the Cascades, where 78 percent of the state’s population resides. It also should be in the Puget Sound area, closer to Seattle than the major airport in Portland.
Beyond those generalities, it is impossible to come up with a suggestion that will not create broad public opposition and lengthy legal battles.
As we have learned, Americans have difficulty bridging their differences.