Keeping its promise to the Plateau, Washington’s Commercial Aviation Coordinating Commission (CACC) released its preliminary recommendations for the state’s airport needs this month — and they didn’t include any mention of a site in King County.
But the issue remains relevant to Plateau residents, as the agency’s recommendations includes the possibility of placing a new two-runway airport near Graham or Eatonville. The ultimate decision will belong to local leaders, the legislature and the FAA — with input from the public along the way.
The CACC, created in 2019 by the legislature to address Washington’s growing airport needs, now has about eight months to further research and refine its two recommendations. It is tasked with delivering a final recommendation to the legislature by June next year.
In the meantime, grassroots efforts to resist a local major airport are trying to balance a healthy dose of vigilance without stirring the pot too much — and bringing unwanted attention back to the region.
That’s the perspective of the Save The Plateau committee from the Enumclaw Plateau Community Association.
With the CACC’s final recommendation due next year, the next two legislative sessions could be crucial as legislators decide what to do with its recommendations. The Save the Plateau committee will be keenly interested in any legislative discussions of the issue before and during the next session, Save The Plateau committee chair Kym Anton said in an interview.
“It is a long game,” Anton said.
THE CACC RECOMMENDATIONS
The CACC’s recommendations (linked to in this story online), published Oct. 15, boil down to two concurrent goals: Make more use of existing airports, and consider building a new major airport in Pierce or Thurston County.
The first recommendation would add capacity to Paine Field, the Snohomish County airfield considered by the CACC to have some of the best odds for handling more traffic and air cargo. And it would call on state leaders to help other regional airports which are interested in adding more commercial service — basically, spreading the love out to smaller airports that want to take on more flights.
The second part of their recommendation is more ambitious. It would pursue a greenfield site (a brand new airport) with two runways in one of three locations: Pierce County Central (located east of Roy), Pierce County East (located just south of Graham) or Thurston County Central (located between Tumwater and Yelm). The CACC narrowed down its original 10 greenfield sites, which included Enumclaw, to those three.
The two Pierce County sites, especially Pierce County East, would affect the Plateau area too, and have already received pushback from the Pierce County Council and executive. They sent a joint letter this month to the CACC expressing “strong objection” to the two Pierce County greenfield sites, which they said face prohibitive infrastructure and environmental challenges, including critical salmon habitat in the area.
The sites would likely affect traffic on the Plateau, such as on state Route 162, though perhaps not to the degree King County Southeast would have.
The CACC chose those two recommendations, rather than its original task of recommending two airport locations, because it let the commission give more thoughtful recommendations and have more time to narrow down which greenfield to select.
“It’s so technical that we didn’t have all the analysis done,” WSDOT Senior Aviation Planner Rob Hodgman said in an interview.
Washington will, by 2050, likely face demand for up to 27 million more annual passengers and 800,000 more metric tons of air cargo, Hodgman said, and research so far indicates that existing airports don’t come close to shouldering it alone.
“What happens if we can’t find a suitable greenfield site? … The answer is, (the excess demand) goes into the existing airports,” Hodgman said.
Doing nothing could thus mean long waits, worse flights and pricier tickets at SeaTac, delays in shipping and more traffic congestion in the Puget Sound, he said.That’s why the commission is focused on finding a greenfield, Hodgman said; the alternative “is not very good” for the greater Puget Sound region.
For the three greenfield sites left, the WSDOT consultant still has some analysis left to do: Which is the best for airspace, air cargo, environmental, transportation, infrastructure and cost concerns? The answers to those questions will help develop the CACC’s final recommendation.
With many factors left to evaluate, “the CACC could not in good conscience” simply pick one of the sites and call it a day, Hodgman said.
You can deliver comments and questions to the CACC by emailing CACC@wsdot.wa.gov.
WHERE WE’RE AT
It’s no surprise the new list by the CACC lacked the Plateau tract.
CACC leaders repeatedly acknowledged — and were reminded by local leaders — that the legislature specifically forbid them from recommending a site in King County anyway.
“It’s not earthshaking news,” Anton said. “Of course, we’re happy to see they didn’t alter their legislative decision.”
Local feedback also unpacked potential drawbacks.
That greenfield was roundly rejected by local leaders across the political spectrum after it was presented to the CACC by a WSDOT consultant in June.
The Muckleshoot Tribe, mayors of Auburn, Black Diamond, Covington, Enumclaw, Maple Valley, all three 31st Legislative District representatives, county council member Reagan Dunn and County Executive Dow Constantine all made official statements asking the commission to look elsewhere if they decide a new airport site is needed.
The King County site is off the table for the CACC, and there appears to be little local support — as well as numerous thorny legal questions — for building an airport here.
But citizens like those in the Save the Plateau committee are staying vigilant of a potential airport comeback for the King County outback.
They’ve critiqued the Washington Aviation System Plan (WASP), a simultaneous but separate process to the CACC’s work. A WASP consultant originally presented the Plateau location to the CACC this summer, and the Plateau spot took high marks in that initial analysis.
The Save the Plateau committee’s criticisms of that WASP report are several:
One: The attractively low land costs for the area are due, largely, to the fact that King County and voters have worked to keep the area zoned and protected for agricultural uses, and directly comparing the land costs of the region to others that didn’t have those types of arrangements is unfair.
Two: Infrastructure costs, especially for building new highways and bridges into the already transportation-choked Plateau, would be massive and aren’t fully accounted for.
Three: The project would drastically affect local salmon populations, which are considered threatened species, and could destroy habitat that can’t simply be recreated elsewhere.
Four: The WASP’s obligation to consider a site’s affect on disproportionally impacted communities — such as people of color — ought to take into account the members of the Muckleshoot tribe who live and work within or right next door to the greenfield area.
(For more information, the committee has a Facebook group called “EPCA – SAVE The Plateau committee.”)
BREAKOUT BOX: HOW A MAJOR AIRPORT COMES TOGETHER
Three entities would have to agree for any new major airport to take off.
They include 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, port, or private agency which manages the airport itself.
The Port of Seattle is the sponsor for Sea-Tac, for instance, and a sponsor could also be a consortium of airlines. The Courier-Herald is not currently aware of any would-be sponsors interested in hosting an airport on the Plateau.
Local government plays an crucial role too. The unified front that local municipalities and lawmakers have put up against the project would make a new major airport harder to build here, and thus could dissuade decision-makers from trying in the first place.