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The Impact – Airport Siting Controversy Prompts Reset Bill

Mike McClanahan profile by Mike McClanahan

In 2019 the state legislature passed a bill to create a Commercial Aviation Coordinating Commission and tasked the group with  evaluating existing airports for potential growth and locating a site for a new airport on the scale of Sea-Tac to meet future passenger and cargo demands. 

In 2022 the CACC recommended expanding service at Paine Field in Everett and produced a short list of three  rural sites for consideration of siting a new airport.  

The rural locations, described by the CACC as greenfield sites, consist of: Pierce County East, a six mile radius south of Graham; Pierce County Central, a six mile radius south of South Creek  where State Routes 702 and 7 come together; and Thurston County Central, a six-mile radius site east of Olympia and west of Yelm.

The three sites have been a major source of controversy. Impacted property owners, local governments, and tribal government leaders in both counties raise strong objections to the idea of uprooting homes, farms, and businesses, and paving over sensitive habitats.  

The three sites have also reportedly raised concerns about potential conflicts with the operation of Joint-Base Lewis McChord.

Some of the lawmakers who were involved with the CACC discussions  have now proposed a bill to start from scratch on the process of searching for sites to accommodate another major airport and identify existing facilities with the potential for expansion.

House Bill 1791 would create a Commercial Aviation Coordinating Work Group that would be tasked with evaluating the pros and cons of various potential new airport sites and the potential for expanding infrastructure and services at existing airports. However, the bill lacks the requirement to recommend airport construction at a specific site. 

The bill is sponsored by the chair of the House Transportation Committee Rep. Jake Fey (D-Tacoma) and co-sponsored by Rep. Tom Dent (R-Moses Lake) with a list of bipartisan co-sponsors. 

“That was a flawed decision by the legislature to do that. 26:02 It was flawed in several ways. It was flawed by having a deadline and a single site to address future aviation commercial needs. There’s many ways to take care of commercial aviation needs. It doesn’t need to come down to one site,” said Rep. Fey at the February 16  public hearing on HB 1791. 

Amid all the backlash from the residents and local representatives of the proposed new airport sites. There is at least one community east of the cascades saying the opposite. At a February 16 public hearing on the bill an elected representative from the City of Yakima spoke in favor of being added to the list of places that might one day host a major international airport.

Without sufficient expansion of air capacity a study produced by the Puget Sound Regional Council projects the demand for air travel could prevent an additional 27 million passenger boardings per year and 800,000 tons of air cargo by 2050.  Proponents of airport capacity expansion say the service gap would likely mean higher ticket prices, longer delays, and more competition for available seats.

Business trade organizations are urging lawmakers to consider the implications of failing to meet the demand for additional air travel and cargo infrastructure citing projections that the economic costs of the service gap could represent tens of  billions of dollars and more than 150,000 jobs.

This week we hear from Rep. Tom Dent (R-Moses Lake) about his support for starting from scratch on the airport siting effort.

“We know this is not working and we need to do something different because how we . . . the direction we gave this through the legislation wasn’t right,” said Dent. “You know, their way of life is being threatened and they’re very concerned and rightfully so. I would be concerned too if I was the one out there.”

We also hear from  Sen. Karen Keiser (D-Des Moines),  the sponsor of the 2019 legislation that created the CACC, about her opposition to the idea of starting over.

“All the locations have drawbacks. The question is, do we have a way or a will to overcome drawbacks and figure out a path forward? We have a huge economic risk here, if we do not address this need.,” said Keiser. “Kicking the can down the road for another two or three years is not a wise choice at this point.  We have to face facts. And the facts are that our current international airport will reach capacity in a few years and we have no options.”