An airport needs many things — land, supportive infrastructure, and, hopefully, community support.
And airspace, unencumbered by difficult terrain or crowding.
Which is why, even though state legislators may consider a renewed search for a brand-new or expanded airport in Washington, Enumclaw — considered a good candidate in some ways for a “greenfield site” — will likely never be considered as a final candidate, according to Washington Department of Transportation Senior Aviation Planner Rob Hodgman.
“Just to reassure your readers … the airspace that exists for SeaTac really kind of eliminates the Enumclaw Plateau,” Hodgman said in a phone interview. “It’s not feasible. Of the four (greenfields) by far, for airspace, the worst … is the Enumclaw Plateau. It’s kind of decided right there. .. Not now, not ever is it going to be there. There’s just no way to make it work.”
A quick refresher: The Enumclaw Plateau, dubbed “Southeast King County,” was one of the ten initial “greenfield” sites evaluated by a state Department of Transportation (WSDOT) consultant last year for a brand-new airport. However, the Commercial Aviation Coordinating Commission (CACC), tasked with making official recommendations where an airport should be built or expanded, was barred via state law from considering sites in King County.
But just because the CACC can’t recommend the Southeast King County site doesn’t mean it can’t be chosen by the powers-that-be, which includes the FAA, the state legislature, local officials (who have widely rejected the idea) and an airport sponsor (no sponsor has reportedly stepped forward at this time).
The CACC is looking at three sites across Pierce and Thurston County, and is tasked with presenting a final recommendation to the legislature by the end of June. In the meantime, WSDOT is still researching the feasibility of the Plateau as a fourth site.
But here’s the conundrum: all four well-publicized potential Puget Sound sites pose serious challenges and widely disliked by their locals. And the places that want the airport tend to be far from many of the residents that would use them.
With that challenge in mind, the state legislature has convened and started discussing what comes next when the CACC’s work is done. (The Courier-Herald plans to address those efforts in a future article.)
THE CACC FROM START TO (ALMOST) FINISH
Warren Hendrickson, acting chair of the CACC, gave a tidy summary of the airport search during a Jan. 9 afternoon work session of the House Transportation Committee.
The time is now to figure out a solution because SeaTac will reach capacity around 2032, Hendrickson said, and it takes 15 to 20 years to develop a new airport. By 2050, WSDOT projects that 27 million more passengers and 800,000 more metric tons of freight will be looking for a plane ticket each year in the area.
“The pandemic … really gave us a little bit more time,” Hendrickson said, referring to the suppressive effect COVID-19 had on air travel. “But we can see that traffic is rapidly increasing.”
When the CACC formed, “we honestly thought that we could probably handle the capacity … with what airports already existed,” Hendrickson said.
But the CACC determined early on in its work that only adding a new airport, along with expanding a few existing ones, could add enough capacity to make up the difference.
Given that, the CACC started to look at where a new airport could go, with the help of a WSDOT consultant working on the Washington Aviation System Plan (WASP) — a separate study of the state’s aviation needs.
Updated every 5 to 7 years, this latest iteration of the WASP is scheduled to be completed in spring 2024, Hodgman said. That final report is used to improve the way airport business is done and share what they’ve learned with the aviation community and government, he said, from pavement maintenance to environmental sustainability and, yes, feasibility of greenfield sites.
“What we’re trying to accomplish is … a very factual, data-based analysis … of aviation needs, and just document our findings,” Hodgman said. “[The WASP] is really not recommendations, per say. … I think it’s just trying to relay to the reader the results of the technical analysis that was done.”
The WASP’s greenfield analysis last year highly ranked the Plateau site, and listed numerous factors that made the area attractive for a brand-new facility, including its flat terrain and proximity to Seattle.
However, with an impending fall deadline to narrow down the sites, other factors like airspace, environmental and tribal impacts, transportation infrastructure, and navigating the growth management act and airport sponsors weren’t addressed, Hendrickson said.
Those are exactly the factors that make the Plateau site less attractive to a new airport — especially airspace. With the region wedged between the crowded SeaTac airspace and the Cascade Range, it would be “really a challenge” to try to fly commercial planes in and out from the Plateau, Hodgman said.
”I won’t say (it’s) impossible,” Hodgman said. “Anything’s possible. But it’s really, really tough to create a new class-C airspace airport with that kind of airspace already existing. The FAA has basically told us, ‘We don’t know how to do that.’”
(This paper has reported several times that any new major airport would need the agreement of the state legislature, an airport sponsor and the FAA to be cleared for take off.)
GRASSROOTS OPPOSITION JOINING FORCES
The CACC ultimately narrowed its recommendations in October to expanding the use of existing airports and considering a new one in one of three Pierce or Thurston county greenfields. But opposition there has been fierce too, and each site faces transportation and environmental challenges.
“Not a single local government entity … nor any sovereign tribal nation in Pierce or Thurston county supports a new greenfield site airport,” Hendrickson said during the legislative meeting, later adding: “Each of the three sites has showstoppers involved. … I am definitely concerned, as a non-voting member … that these sites remain viable.”
Kym Anton, chair of the Enumclaw Plateau Community Association’s efforts to oppose a new major airport locally, said the group is very encouraged by the news that airspace constraints at all four greenfield sites make those locations problematic for the FAA.
Save the Plateau (savetheplateau.com) has joined forces with similar new airport opposition groups in Thurston (stoptheairport.com) and Pierce Counties (noairporthere.org), Anton said. As fellow community member Mary Brockman pointed out, the rivers and the wildlife of the South Puget Sound which would be affected by an airport don’t think about the county lines.
“We’re standing behind them and trying to help them,” Anton said. “I think we’re recognizing that the rural communities need to be protected. … There isn’t really much of a line between King, Pierce and Thurston counties.”
THERE IS ANOTHER
There’s at least one place that actually wants the airport, Hendrickson said – the City of Yakima formally requested the CACC to select McAllister Field / Yakima Air Terminal as the location for new capacity. It has connections for rail that could be updated to serve passengers, pre-built infrastructure and ample land to expand auxiliary services for the airport.
“Our community would enthusiastically welcome the consideration of YKM for enhanced cargo and commercial air service,” the Mayor and City Council Members of Yakima wrote to the CACC a couple weeks ago.
But therein lies the fundamental dilemma.
Yakima wants the new airport, but is far away from the Puget Sound, where a new airport would get the most use. The four greenfields in Pierce, Thurston and Southeast King County would serve many people but have serious, possibly irreconcilable environmental, land use, airspace and transportation challenges, not to mention face overwhelming local rejection.
In the end, there are no easy choices for the CACC. (Well, except for expanding Paine Field, which the City of Everett supports.)
But the mountain of public response to the airport search has made three things clear, Hodgman said: People are generally on board for increasing aviation capacity, but they want it done environmentally responsibly, using existing airports, and by maximizing rail to move people around.
That approach wouldn’t be easy, but neither would anything else — so why not give it a try, Hodgman said.
“In my personal opinion, not speaking for the CACC or the department [WSDOT], the public has told us what they want,” Hodgman said. “Let’s do that. Let’s expand existing airports in an environmentally friendly way. Let’s use rail.”
The CACC’s final recommendation is due to the legislature June 15, but that’s all it can do — recommend. In our next article, we’ll take a look at what happens after that point and where the legislature goes next.
“We have no execution authority, we have no decision authority,” Hendrickson said at last week’s meeting. “We have one task before us, and that is a recommendation.”