‘We’re not finished:’ Legislators may take another crack at airport search

Rep. Tom Dent of Moses Lake says the current sites considered for a new airport “are wrong.”

Legislators may take a second crack at the search for expanding Washington’s aviation options, with a committee empowered to consider further-away locations for new airports and re-consider expanding existing ones.

That’s an option, at any rate, that Commercial Aviation Coordinating Commission (CACC) non-voting member and State Rep. Tom Dent (R – Moses Lake) plans to present to fellow legislators soon.

As we detailed last week: The Enumclaw Plateau was one of ten initial “greenfield” sites evaluated by a state Department of Transportation (WSDOT) consultant last year for a brand-new airport. The CACC has so far recommended the state expand service at existing airports and that one of three sites across Pierce and Thurston County be selected for a new two-runway airport.

But those three sites, as well as the Plateau location which is technically off the table for the CACC, aren’t looking too hot.

Residents and local officials across city, county and tribal governments have widely rejected them. The sites pose major environmental, infrastructure and airspace obstacles; the latter of which, alone, makes the Enumclaw location extremely challenging. And some non-voting CACC members have said in public meetings and interviews that those sites — the best among the options they had — still may not be up to snuff.

Acting CACC chair Warren Hendrickson said in a legislative meeting this month that “each of the three sites has showstoppers,” and said he has concerns as to whether “these sites remain viable.”

Dent puts it a little more bluntly: “The sites … are wrong,” he said. “It’s not going to happen in any of those places.”

WSDOT Aviation Senior Planner Rob Hodgman said in an interview with this paper that FAA airspace issues alone make the Plateau site a non-starter.

Before we get ahead of ourselves, the CACC isn’t done. Its members are still researching and have until June to give their final recommendation to the airport.

But Rep. Dent is at least one lawmaker who says the airport search should build on the work it’s done and continue looking for better options.


Rep. Dent said he has a draft put together and is finalizing efforts with his colleagues to propose a bill that would continue the CACC’s work after their summer deadline comes and goes. (As of the morning of Jan. 23, that bill hadn’t yet been filed, but we’ll follow up when it is.)

“We need to get a look at what’s happening … maybe more collaboration, and buy in from a bigger audience, and I just think we didn’t do that,” Dent said. “I’m not blaming anybody; it’s just what happened. … I do believe we’re not finished. If we’re serious about looking for another site, we need to continue.”

The legislation that made the CACC didn’t set aside enough time to really do the search justice, Dent said. The pandemic led to a one-year extension of the search, but that wasn’t enough to offset the challenges and slowdowns it imposed on the process, he said.

Now the CACC is left with the three sites in Pierce and Thurston counties that Dent feels just don’t work.

“I don’t believe there should be an airport at anyone of them, and that’s one of the reasons I’m working on this bill,” Dent said.

Dent won’t be the only person writing the bill. But for his part, he says the new search should re-prioritize the use and expansion of existing airports, look further away for potential greenfield sites, and get the public more involved in the search, especially at in-person meetings.

Rather than just limit the search to greenfields within 90 minutes of SeaTac, “we need to expand that to 90 miles,” Dent said.

Ninety miles from SeaTac could put you in or right outside of Chehalis, Aberdeen, Bellingham, Wenatchee, Ellensburg or Kelso. It’s only a few more miles shy of the City of Yakima, which has asked the CACC to use their existing Yakima Air Terminal / McAllister Field for more cargo and commercial air service.

He’d also recommend not cutting King County of of the search, as 2019’s SB 5370, which created the CACC, did. (Specifically, the legislation prevented the CACC from choosing a spot in any county with two million or more residents. Only King County fits that description.)

That would put the Plateau / Southeast King County option for a greenfield back on the table, though Dent said he has no appetite to advocate for using that site.

“I haven’t seen anybody send me an email saying ‘These are great sites, let’s start building the airports,’” Dent said. “… (But) I think we were wrong in the original bill to carve out King County. You start carving out people, areas, … and pretty soon everybody will be carved out, and that’s the end of the study.”

Enumclaw Mayor Jan Molinaro “strongly supports” expanding the search outside of Puget Sound.

“I still feel like there are so many challenges with the sites they’ve identified,” Molinaro said, including threats to endangered species and developmental rights purchased by King County on the Plateau. “… Obviously we’re still strongly opposing [the Plateau] site, no matter [whether] they feel King County should be exempted.”


Another bill getting local attention is HB 1040, which would put into a statute a committee that was formed years ago by a proviso in the 2021-2023 operating budget. The committee would consider airport and air traffic needs and ways to expand the aviation industry across the state more generally.

“The committee is in existence now. The bill would put it into statute,” Dent said. “… it’s been very successful, staffed by some of the brightest minds in the state of Washington in the aerospace aviation industry. It’s about commerce, and growing the aerospace aviation industry in the state.”

Dent said that an aviation caucus of legislators and state stakeholders has been discussing these issues for years, and he’s long thought it could use a committee that could research and act on some of the ideas bounced around. That’s the goal of the HB 1040 committee.

This committee would exist under the Department of Commerce, not Transportation, as it would focus specifically on growing the industry, said Dent, the bill’s prime sponsor.

That bill stirred up concern locally. The Save the Plateau Community Association called on citizens to oppose HB 1040 and said it would establish a new committee to replace the CACC. The City of Enumclaw and Mayor Jan Molinaro reposted their call to action on the city’s official Facebook page.

Replacing the CACC is not his intention, Rep. Dent said. The legislature held a meeting after that call to action to discuss HB 1040, during which Dent clarified that it would not be duplicating or picking up the CACC’s work.

“It has absolutely nothing to do with the new airport,” Dent said in a phone interview with the Courier-Herald Jan. 17.

To make that point as clear as possible, Dent said he plans to add an amendment to the bill clarifying that the committee “cannot, will not work on siting a new commercial airport.”

Mayor Molinaro and Kym Anton, chair of the Enumclaw Plateau Community Association’s efforts to oppose a new major airport locally, said they both look forward to and would be pleased by such an amendment.

“I think, yeah, we’d basically let it slide,” Anton said of the bill should that amendment transpire. “We won’t oppose it any further, but I wouldn’t go in there and say I’m for it. We’ve already officially opposed it, but we’d leave it at that.”

“If it’s separate from the (CACC) … and it’s just to help in expanding business, the industry itself … versus an aviation commission to site an airport … then that’s no issue at all,” Molinaro said. “It sounds like something that would help existing communities like Kent, … and even in Enumclaw, we’ve got an aviation company in our community. Yeah, I don’t see an issue with that at all.”

(The Enumclaw airport opposition group has allied with similar groups in Pierce and Thurston county, Anton said, presenting a regional show of resistance against any of the proposed major airport greenfields. The groups will be demonstrating on the steps of the state capitol in Olympia from 10 to 11 a.m. on Jan. 25, Anton said.)

“Even if King County is indeed not one of the chosen sites … I still feel an obligation to help rally with the other communities,” Anton said.

Those interested in Washington’s aviation future should also keep an eye on HB 1331, co-sponsored by Dent, which would exempt sales of labor, services, materials and equipment for new construction at public use airports from the state sales and use taxes, in a bid to incentivize new business development at those airports and keep Washington competitive in the aviation and aerospace industries.

Another item to watch is HB 1126, a supplemental transportation appropriations bill for the biennial budget. Among its suggested provisions are $257,000 solely for supporting the CACC and $150,000 specifically for the CACC to continue community engagement work.

Ultimately, while the airspace issue is encouraging for Molinaro, he said the city won’t be counting its chickens until they’ve hatched.

“I keep joking with different people, council members, about this, it’s like a zombie,” Molinaro said. “[The Plateau greenfield idea] keeps coming back from the dead. … But if they come back with a report that confirms the difficulty of flight patterns, that I would think would put a nail in the coffin. … [But] until they officially sign the paperwork and make the big grand ribbon cutting, the groundbreaking, anything is still possible.”