December 30, 2022

EDB board gathers info on new regional airport

In case you haven’t heard, the Puget Sound region needs another major airport, and two rural Pierce County locations are on the short list for proposed sites.

The EDB is still in information-gathering mode and has not taken a position on a preferred airport location. In December, EDB board members heard from one of the principals involved in the selection-recommendation process. Rob Hodgman, Senior Aviation Planner with the Washington State Department of Transportation, offered a brief overview of where things are in the process and what’s next.

A big ask

The Commercial Aviation Coordinating Commission (CACC) was created by the Washington State Legislature in 2019. Members appointed by the governor’s office were tasked with finding solutions for the capacity challenges at SeaTac International Airport. The CACC has until June 15 of this year to recommend a single site for a new commercial service airport.

It’s a big ask for a growing problem. SeaTac Airport serves around 50 million passengers a year, and according to a 2021 Regional Aviation Baseline Study by the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC),  that number is projected to nearly double by 2050. Air cargo traffic is expected to mushroom from 610,000 tons per year (pre-pandemic) to 1.4 million tons by the middle of the century.

Weighing options

Initially, the commission thought an existing airport might solve the problem. A list of 18 locations was narrowed to 6 — Arlington Municipal, Bremerton National, Ed Carlson Memorial Field in South Lewis County, Paine Field in Everett, Sanderson Field near Shelton, and Tacoma Narrows in Gig Harbor. Paine Field was the only airport recommended by the commission to move forward to the next phase.

The CACC next looked to 10 greenfield (undeveloped) sites that could accommodate a new, two-runway airport on around 3,100 acres. All the locations were along the I-5 corridor within 100 miles of Seattle and west of the Cascade Mountains.

In October 2022, the CACC advanced two options to the Washington State Legislature:

  • Expand Paine Field capacity according to its Airport Master Plan (with potential for additional capacity). This assumes that SeaTac Airport completes its Sustainable Airport Master Plan.
  • Continue to analyze greenfield site options for a two-runway airport in “Pierce County Central” (South Creek where state routes 702 and 7 meet), “Pierce County East” (south of Graham, including State Route 161) or “Thurston County Central” (southeast of East Olympia).

Separately, the State Department of Transportation is assessing a fourth site just west of Enumclaw in southeast King County.

A troubling issue

The CACC has faced challenges along the way, Hodgman said, from community, neighborhood and environmental impacts, to tribal interests, infrastructure requirements and airport sponsorship. Public response has been robust. The commission received more than 20,000 comments in the past year.

“We recognize that this is troubling,” Hodgman said. “People are not only worried about being displaced from their homes and businesses, but there’s also a lot of concern about the quality of rural living and how that would be impacted.”

On the other hand, without a greenfield site, the region can expect a major transportation problem – and missed opportunities. The 2021 Regional Aviation Baseline Study showed that meeting the full level of air passenger and air cargo need by 2050 would add $31 billion in annual economic activity and 209,000 jobs to the region.

“You can flip the coin over and say if we don’t meet that demand, then we have the potential for losing that amount of economic vitality,” Hodgman said.

In the meantime, the commission still has a lot of technical data to review about each of the three locations. There will continue to be ample opportunities for community input, including working group meetings, emails and polls, an online open house and more. Otherwise, submitting a final recommendation to the Legislature by June 15 is the CACC’s next milestone.

“I can tell you right now we have a tough road ahead of us,” Hodgman said. “At this point there doesn’t appear to be a strong, viable contender.”

You can find a quick summary of the CACC’s guiding principles, recommendations and other important considerations here. For additional information, visit the Commercial Aviation Coordinating Commission website.


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