Since its public unveiling in June, the hypothetical “King County Southeast” airport has prompted confusion and concern.
The basics are simple: Washington’s airport needs are growing, so the state legislature in 2019 created the Commercial Aviation Coordinating Commission (CACC) to recommend a site for the state’s next major airport. The legislation that created the CACC (SB 5370) ruled out Joint Base Lewis-McChord or anywhere in King County, but the CACC was briefed in June on a site in the Enumclaw Plateau — entirely within King County.
“King County Southeast” would drastically change the character of the region and require major infrastructure changes. Q&A submissions at the CACC’s last meeting were in the triple digits, and most shared concerns about the hypothetical Plateau location.
Since that June meeting, the CACC and WSDOT, which is tasked with helping the CACC, have held two virtual public meetings and an online open house, which remains open through Friday (Sept. 9) at engage.wsdot.wa.gov/cacc/. The commission plans to hold another public meeting in late September.
Those meetings have clarified parts of the process, and the obstacles that would make it a steep – though not impossible – challenge for “King County Southeast” to be built.
Now the King County Council will take the issue up, too. Councilmembers Reagan Dunn, Rod Demboswki and Pete von Reichbauer on Thursday introduced legislation calling on WSDOT to drop “King County Southeast” from its Washington Aviation System Plan (WASP) altogether.
(The WASP is a separate effort from the CACC’s work, and the council’s legislation, linked to this story online, references but doesn’t directly address the CACC’s work.)
HOW WE GOT HERE
Why is this all so urgent? Airport traffic demand is estimated to double by 2050 from its pre-pandemic peak, according to WSDOT.
A Puget Sound Regional Council study determined that meeting the full demand would add roughly $25 billion more annually to the economy, and spur the growth of around 160,000 more jobs, than maintaining the status quo.
“Phase 1” of the CACC’s work looked at growing existing airports. Of six options, Paine Field in Snohomish County is most promising, but it still couldn’t meet the need on its own if expanded.
“The short answer is, we cannot meet the need with existing airports, which gives us a choice of going after a greenfield, or not meeting the need,” WSDOT Aviation Senior Planner Robert Hodgman said in an interview.
Now in “Phase 2,” the CACC is taking a look at “greenfields,” or undeveloped spaces, to house a brand new airport.
At the same time, WSDOT is updating the WASP — a totally separate but similar process to the CACC’s work, which studies the state’s aviation system and needs as a whole. It’s a fortunate coincidence that this WASP update is simultaneous to the CACC’s work, Hodgman said, because its research can be useful for both purposes.
That’s why a WSDOT consultant working on the WASP briefed the CACC on 10 greenfields earlier this summer, including the Plateau location, which ranked highest on the consultant’s initial set of criteria. Briefing the commission on the Enumclaw location, even if the site can’t be selected, gives the CACC context for their process overall, Hodgman explained.
The CACC won’t recommend the Plateau greenfield, Hodgman said.
“The CACC can’t consider it because it’s legislatively not an option,” Hodgman said. “The CACC will not be recommending anything in King County.”
But as the Courier-Herald reported in July, the decision isn’t up to them. The CACC was created to research and present options, with WSDOT’s help, to the legislature.
“I think there’s an (incorrect) perception … that WSDOT is leading this effort and trying to build a new airport,” Hodgman said. “We are civil servants. … We have to look at all aspects of the public need … and so we’re trying to do the most responsible job we can.”
WHAT IT WOULD TAKE
So who decides where a new airport is built?
Three entities would have to agree for any new major airport to take off: the Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates air travel and provides funding; the state legislature, which approves funding for the connecting infrastructure; and an “airport sponsor,” such as city, county or port, which manages the airport itself. (The Port of Seattle is the sponsor for Sea-Tac, for instance).
“An airport is not built if it doesn’t meet FAA standards,” Hodgman said. “Without the legislature on board, it’ll never happen. … (And) if you don’t have an (airport) sponsor, you don’t have an airport.”
No airport sponsors for the greenfield sites have been identified, Fleckenstein said. Enumclaw leaders and local legislators have denounced the idea, and the county executive was highly doubtful of the airport’s feasibility when asked by the Courier-Herald.
What if a would-be sponsor stepped up — could local government try to stop it? That would be unusual, complicated legal territory, Hodgman said in an interview, but it does seem possible, he said.
Next month, the CACC must recommend their top two options to the state legislature. After that point, the commission has until June next year to make its final recommendation to legislators. And allowing any new aviation will pose environmental and public health challenges that, if poorly answered, will sicken people, disrupt wildlife and worsen global climate change.
“This is a really tough endeavor that we’re trying to take on,” Hodgman said. “It’s kind of, almost, the impossible problem to solve, because we have such a great need in the region. … I think it’s going to be very spirited discussion amid (CACC) members … to try to come to a viable, responsive, and responsible solution.”