When Sound Transit proposed a dogleg light rail alignment to Everett in order to pick up Paine Field on the way, many–present company included–expressed doubts. Would dreams of a second major airport in the region materialize and would it be at Everett’s Paine Field? Were we building a rail dogleg to nowhere?

Those second airport dreams got one step closer to fruition last month as Alaska Airlines announced it would begin regional commercial air service to Paine Field in mid-2018. Yesterday, Propeller Airports broke ground on the new passenger terminal at a ceremony attended by Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers (who is also Chair of the Sound Transit Board) and Lieutenant Governor Cyrus Habib.

Alaska Airlines’ chief commercial officer Andrew Harrison cited congestion both at the Sea-Tac International Airport and on area highways as motivating the expansion.

“Our region has seen tremendous growth in recent years, especially in north Puget Sound,” Harrison said. “With Sea-Tac Airport near capacity and I-5 gridlock the norm, the time is right to give residents living in north King and Snohomish counties the option of flying closer from home. On behalf of Alaska Airlines and our 7,000 employees who call this region home, we’re thrilled to join Propeller and Snohomish County in bringing commercial air service back to Paine Field.”

The new Paine Field passenger terminal by Propeller Airports. (Images from Alaska Airlines video)

Alaska will start with service to nearby cities only, meaning Paine Field has a very long way to go to rival Sea-Tac, a behemoth airport that has climbed to ninth busiest in the nation and is also adding more terminals. “More than a million North Sound travelers will enjoy shorter commutes to the airport and up to nine daily departures,” Propeller said in the press release. “Many travelers who live north of Seattle spend more time getting to an airport than actually flying to destinations as close as Portland, Oregon.”

Paine Field is partway between SW Everett Industrial Center and SR 99/Airport Road in the ST3 map. (Sound Transit)

Propeller will rent the land for the two-gate terminal and revert the land back to County ownership after the lease:

In March 2017, Propeller entered into a public-private partnership with Snohomish County to develop the passenger terminal at Paine Field with private financing. Under a long-term lease, Propeller is responsible for building and maintaining a state-of-the- art, two gate terminal, which would revert to County ownership at the end of the lease. Propeller will make annual rental payments to the County. Estimated rent payments total more than $25 million over the term of the agreement, in addition to the County share or terminal revenues.

The small terminal could get the ball rolling and lead to Paine Field growing into the second major airport that regional leaders envisioned when they pushed to invest an additional billion dollars on the Paine Field alignment and delay light rail travel times to Everett by an estimated seven minutes over a SR-99 alignment. Needless to say, Sound Transit would be happy to have plane loads of customers to serve when they begin light rail service to Paine Field, which is expected by 2036.

Plan for passenger terminal at Paine Field. (Snohomish County)

One catch: no light rail station is planned right at the passenger terminal–although travelers are already used to a long walk through the parking garage at Sea-Tac. This walk would be more than a mile, probably not reasonable for a luggage-laden traveler. Particularly if Paine Field airport has grown by the time light rail opens, a shuttle could link the terminal to the nearest light rail station, which is called “SW Everett Industrial Center” at this juncture but hopefully not permanently. Or if Paine Field really grows in importance, an infill light rail station could solve the problem and go in near the terminal at 100th St SW and Airport Rd.

In the meantime, buses will serve the airport. That service will get an upgrade with Swift II’s Green Line, which is schedule to go live in early 2019. The 100th St SW station will almost serve the terminal directly–stopping a quater-mile short. At the SR-99 station, the Swift Green Line will offer transfers to the Swift Blue Line, which runs along SR-99 from Shoreline to Downtown Everett and boasts of being Washington state’s first bus rapid transit line (opened in 2009).

Anyway, with big airport and transportation plans, maybe big things are happening in Snohomish County.

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Doug Trumm is The Urbanist's Executive Director. An Urbanist writer since 2015, he dreams of pedestrianizing streets, blanketing the city in bus lanes, and unleashing a mass timber building spree to end the affordable housing shortage and avert our coming climate catastrophe. He graduated from the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.

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I find it odd that urbanists are excited about this. Yes, eventually, the light rail might serve the airport. Big deal. We are missing the big story here, and it is right in the press release:

… I-5 gridlock the norm …

The whole assumption is that people will drive to the airport. Despite the fact that Link serves SeaTac (and will continue to serve SeaTac), the problem is “I-5 gridlock”. The folks behind this don’t think this is about transit — quite the opposite. This is about the ability of someone in, say, Bothell, to take an early morning flight to Portland without bothering with traffic or transit.

I think it is reasonable to assume that even when Link is complete, a lager percentage of people will take transit to SeaTac than Paine Field. Adding more flights to Paine Field doesn’t sound like a good thing.

Nathaniel Williams

Whose dream is it, anyway?

Many in Snohomish County oppose commercial flights at Paine Field because it would lead to a noticeable increase of airplane noise over many neighborhoods. Commercial flights would also make it harder for the other tenants of Paine Field to use it, including Boeing testing their aircraft, and aviation museums exhibiting planes. This could lead to some higher-wage aerospace and aviation jobs at Paine Field being replaced with lower-wage airport service jobs.

Also, the light rail diversion to Paine Field is unjustifiable with or without commercial flights. Sound Transit’s own studies show the diversion costs more money to serve fewer riders, compared to alternative plans which have Paine Field served with a BRT loop or light rail spur.


Prediction: This will fail. Alaskan will expand flights once or twice before cutting back in a few years. No other airline will serve Paine–maybe one, but for less than a year. There will be zero flights serving Paine field by 2026 at the latest.

Joseph Wolf

Can I ask why you think this venture will not succeed?


I don’t agree. Snohomish County is growing rapidly and our highway system is very clogged. Anyone who has slogged from North King or Snohomish Counties to Sea-Tac if given the opportunity to go through PAE would give it a try. We are at the critical juncture where we must begin planning for a major relief airport to Sea-Tac. They’ve admitted they will run out of capacity. Just like MDW relieves, ORD or WAS relieves IAD (or vice versa) I think if service is provided to a major hub (SFO, DEN, LAX) from PAE, then there will be plenty of demand. This airport will be fed by North King, North Kitsap (plus Olympic peninsula counties) , Island, Snohomish and even parts of Skagit counties. That’s upwards of 1.2 million people. If anything the competition for passengers for this airport will be with Bellingham which already has established service fed primarily by its proximity to Vancouver Metro.


Even without the airport, Boeing is still the largest employer in the state. No one questions running the light rail to Microsoft. This is no different. Probably there are more workers at paine field than Microsoft.

I feel like a lot of people just don’t know Puget Sound that well, so there is unreasonable negativity towards anything outside of king county.

Al Dimond

Yes, Boeing is a very large employer. Of course, there are many sites besides Paine Field, but even Paine Field is very large. But considering the geographical distribution of Paine Field workers, and the patterns of arrival and departure times, it seems the most logical way to serve their needs would be several routes from surrounding areas arriving and departing around shift changes, not a single high-frequency/high-capacity line between there and points south. And that’s what CT runs today. I tend to go on the assumption that transit agencies (particularly ones with such thoughtful outreach as CT) aren’t stupid. There probably is a deficit in transit between Paine and King County, in addition to major transfer nodes like Lynnwood TC — but at many times transfers would need to be made there aren’t even local buses running to Lynnwood! So CT’s current service emphasizes other P&Rs and drop-off locations.

As for the comparison with Microsoft: frequent rapid-transit-type service to the Microsoft area is succeeding today.

Al Dimond

FWIW I don’t really object to the Paine Field detour too much — as a non-SnoHoCo resident, it’s not my subarea, not my money, (mostly) not my business. To the extent it is my business I think it’s important that we get mass-transit to industrial hubs really working again, and I’m not sure there are too many better places to try than Paine.

I also don’t think ST’s numbers on the Paine Field stop are crazy. It’s a tough go. As with Swift II, which similarly covers what probably amounts to a service deficit but isn’t particularly suited to the needs of Paine’s workers and does choose, compared to existing service, to serve Paine over areas more similar to those where frequent, fast, connection-based service has succeeded. I think it’s reasonable to view such lines more as symbols of state and county commitment to Boeing than as attempts at using public funds to the greatest benefit of the people, ‘eh? And it’s probably good to do so, because at this they’re more likely to succeed. I’d truly love to be wrong, though — I would have vastly underestimated the success of ST’s freeway-express network, FWIW.


Microsoft is also very spread out. So they offer a campus shuttle to get around. Many people will not just hop off the light rail and walk to their building, but rather transfer to a shuttle.

High frequency grade separated transit lines tend to get a lot more ridership than lots of little bus routes.


Buses will still play a key last mile role in the Industrial area, with SWIFT II / CT service and possibly employer shuttles. Building a transit node around the “SW Everett Industrial Center” station allows for CT to shift away from P&R centric service patterns, with Link doing the heavy lifting for Paine-King County trip pairs


The best thing about the so called detour is neither the service to Boeing (or other industrial plants in the area) nor the connection to the airport. The best thing is the service to what passes for population density in the region, which is the area between I-5 and SR 99, along 128th and Evergreen Way (https://arcg.is/194SqL). The other nice thing is the connection to SR 99.

As suggested, simply going straight up to downtown Everett would be faster. But for people that far north, an express bus line (which skips over all the stops between there and Lynnwood) would likely be faster than any light rail extension most of the time.

Of course you could just cut over to 99 (where it does) and simply end there. That would be a much better value. While Boeing does employ a fair number of people in the area, industrial employment continues to shrink — not just because it is moving to other parts of the world (or other parts of the country with weaker labor laws) but because of robotics. This makes it fundamentally different than office work, which is dependent on getting more and more people together. Either way, you will need connecting buses, and it really doesn’t matter that much where they connect, for the number of people we are talking about.

Unfortunately, there simply isn’t the population density or employment density in the area to justify rail. The fundamental advantage of rail is capacity, and you will never need that north of Lynnwood. What bothers about the whole thing is that I fear that much of Snohomish County will continue to have very weak transit options, while they spend a huge amount of money on something they will never need. The Swift Line, as good as it is, only runs every 12 minutes. This is due to lack of funding, and well as lack of demand. Both of which suggest that spending loads of money north of Lynnwood on a train line is a bad idea. I think folks would be much better off spending it improving Swift, as well as other bus service. As Al said, it isn’t my money, but as someone who used to live up there — and suffered from really bad bus service — it bothers me.

Al Dimond

Hooray, growth in air travel capacity? Air travel occupies a uniquely bad niche in terms of sustainability. First, it burns a lot of fossil fuels. Today, of course, ground-transportation, food production, and various functions of buildings (mostly heating IIRC) do the same. Second, there’s no plausible way to achieve major fossil-fuel reductions in air travel without changing consumption patterns.. Here it departs from ground-transportation, many building functions, and some food-production activities, where electricity (or maybe fuel cells) can stand in for direct use of fossil fuels, and electricity generation is generally getting cleaner. Third, air travel can’t be modified to use less energy by changing consumption patterns while still providing the same basic need. In ground-transportation, the same basic product (urban mobility) can be delivered with less energy use and fewer VMT through wise urban planning and infrastructure development; in food-production there are large differences in the energy, land, and pollution footprints of many foods with similar nutritional values; and buildings can be designed to use less energy while still housing people in many ways.

So should we really be planning for a future with more air travel between Seattle and nearby cities like Spokane and Portland? It’s hard to see where air travel fits into the sustainability picture aside from simply doing less of it!


If people in Snohomish county have to drive to Sea-Tac to take a flight, how does that help sustainability? People will fly either way.
Also, most of the flights will be to California. No one flies from Seattle to Portland. People just drive or take the train. Any Seattle to Portland flights you see are probably full of transfers.

OLFer Zero One

I fly KSEA-KPDX (Seattle to Portland) 3-4 times a year… no transfers.

Al Dimond

People will certainly fly less if we take any kind of serious action against climate change. And that’s the future we ought to plan for.


High speed rail could perhaps replace local flights to Portland, Spokane, etc. Same perhaps with fast, cheap driverless buses. For reference, currently ~2x NYC-Boston trips are done by rail vs. plane. However, we are simply too far from most major destination to make even true HSR competitive, to say nothing of the growing volume of trans-pacific flights.


I agree, but I think the problem isn’t that we are too far from most major destinations to make high speed rail work. Vancouver-Seattle-Portland is nowhere near as populous as the East Coast, but the spacing is just about perfect for high speed rail, and the cities are big enough. The problem is that it will cost a bundle to make it fast. Unlike areas like Texas, the terrain is very challenging. Even our commuter rail suffers in that regard (at least in terms of connecting cities). It is fine for connecting the suburbs along the way (e. g. Auburn, Kent) but to get to Tacoma (or Everett) the route is so indirect that an express bus (moving slowly through traffic) is often faster. This explains why Auburn and Kent have higher Sounder ridership than Tacoma or Everett.

Joseph Wolf

Flying is more efficient than you’re asserting here.

From the piece:

“In 1970, Sivak reports, it took 10,185 BTUs to move a person a mile in an airplane, compared with 5,067 BTUs to move a person a mile in a car—making flying twice as energy intensive as driving. But as the chart below shows, the ratio came down steadily. By 1985, airline travel consumed only 4,950 BTUs per passenger mile, less than half the 1970 amount. Car travel became more efficient, too, but not so dramatically. By 2000, airline travel (3,892 BTU per passenger mile) officially became greener than driving (3,926 BTU per person, per mile.) The trend has continued so that in 2010, flying burned just 2,691 BTU per passenger mile—an improvement of 74 percent since 1970. That was 43 percent better than driving the average car, which gets about 21.5 miles per gallon (4,218 BTU per passenger mile).* It was better than buses as well.”


Al Dimond

Ugh, I never said flying is less efficient than driving today. It’s in the same ballpark by mile, which is about what I remember. What I said is that, like driving (and a bunch of other things we do, including other modes of ground transportation, heating buildings, and producing food), it uses a lot of energy. But with flying, unlike with much other human energy usage, there aren’t even plausible ideas to get it off fossil fuels, and there aren’t obvious changes in consumption patterns to reduce its energy usage besides simply doing less of it. Airplanes are way more efficient today than 50 years ago, but I haven’t heard anyone claim similar types of improvements should be expected in the next 50 years. If we’re planning for a sustainable future with less carbon emissions (what other future should we plan for?) we have to look at the potential for carbon reduction in the industry, which isn’t great.

This speaks more against SeaTac expansion than beginning a small passenger operation out of Paine Field, of course!