Washington New Airport Siting Commission Shortlists Possible Locations and Opens Public Survey

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People shuffle about the renovated and expanded North Satellite at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. (Credit: The Urbanist)

Washington is still hunting for a new major commercial airport location as part of a state-mandated study. The state department of transportation has winnowed the list down to six possible sites in Puget Sound — none of which are in King County. A somewhat similar study was conducted by the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC), which wrapped up in May. As part of the selection process, the state department of transportation is seeking public feedback on topics which amount to economic priorities.

Shortlisted sites by the commission

Known as the Commercial Aviation Coordinating Commission (CACC), the Washington State Legislature has tasked the commission to identify a single site for a new major commercial airport. The first phase of the effort has shortlisted six possible sites for a new airport. Among these are:

  • Arlington Municipal Airport, which has one runway that is 5,332 feet long and 100 feet wide;
  • Paine Field Airport (Everett), which has one runway that is 9,010 feet long and 150 feet wide;
  • Bremerton National Airport, which has one runway that is 6,000 feet long and 150 feet wide;
  • South Lewis County Airport (Toledo), which has one runway that is 4,479 feet long and 150 feet wide;
  • Sanderson Field Airport (Shelton), which has one runway that is 5,005 feet long and 100 feet wide; and
  • Tacoma Narrows Airport (Gig Harbor), which has one runway that is 5,002 feet long and 100 feet wide.

The locations of these airports would generally benefit commercial passengers in the south end of Puget Sound and out in Kitsap County and the Olympic Peninsula, with the exception of Arlington Municipal Airport and Paine Field Airport (PAE). Right now, passengers in King County and Snohomish County — and to a degree in Pierce County — have reasonable access to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA) and PAE, though SEA offers the widest selection of flights. North of Snohomish County, Puget Sounders have reasonable access to Bellingham International Airport (BLI). So, it does make sense that CACC would focus interests for a new major commercial airport south of Seattle, though it remains unclear how much larger PAE will become in the future — the airport is currently capped at 24 daily departures.

PSRC’s Regional Aviation Baseline Study findings

This map shows all of the private and public airports in King, Snohomish, Pierce, and Kitsap Counties and their designation type. (Credit: PSRC)

The PSRC’s Regional Aviation Baseline Study — while similar to work by the CACC — did not make recommendation on any airport expansions or siting of new airports. What it did do is take stock of existing airports — both public and private — throughout Puget Sound to determine trends, forecast growth, and evaluate future system requirements as well as operational issues like flight paths.

Generally speaking, the Regional Aviation Baseline Study found that the region will have capacity for 28.6 million annual enplanements (the number of passengers boarding flights) by 2027 and that demand will grow to 55.6 million annual enplanements by 2050. Despite growth plans at SEA, the airport wouldn’t be able to keep up with the level of demand and is poised to reach full capacity in the 2030s. The study also expressly noted that even with projected growth and expansion at SEA and PAE, the region would face an estimated unmet demand of 22 million to 27 million annual enplanements by 2050. However, the impact of Covid was not seriously analyzed and the underlying pre-Covid assumptions for commercial aviation demand were assumed by the study, with the PSRC indicating that “airports and airlines estimate a recovery to 2019 levels by 2023 to 2024.”

  • Graph showing current and future demand for commercial aviation.
  • A bar graph showing three scenarios of commercial aviation demand by 2050.

Air cargo growth is also surging and faces some challenges ahead. In 2017, 539,600 metric tons of air cargo were moved through the region’s airports. This is projected to grow to 1,319,300 metric tons per year by 2050. There is some seasonality for air cargo demand, but ultimately there is concern that air cargo demand may run into challenges by 2027 due to warehousing space at SEA and King County International Airport. The study points out there “there are opportunities to redesign existing on-airport facilities, develop new off-airport facilities, use Grant County Moses Lake International Airport as a cargo reliever during the harvest time for high value crops like cherries, and shift some traffic to Spokane International Airport to create additional capacity in the central Puget Sound region.”

As far as general aviation is concerned, the PSRC study suggests that “there will be adequate runway capacity to accommodate general aviation demand through 2050.” However, general aviation airports do need some investment to address issues of deteriorating runways and insufficient hangar space.

Ultimately, three scenarios were evaluated to meet 50%, 80%, and 100% of 2050 regional aviation demand. The study found that a second SEA-size airport or multiple airport investments on the same scale would be required to meet forecasted 2050 demand. Study findings also provide some consensus with CACC on site strengths for expansion on a technical basis. Of the 29 airports evaluated, four locations were analyzed more deeply, which included: Arlington Municipal Airport, Bremerton National Airport, Paine Field Airport, and Tacoma Narrows Airport. The study found that Arlington Municipal Airport, Bremerton National Airport, and Tacoma Narrows Airport all have room for expansion, and that Paine Field Airport has capacity to support more service. However, the study also found that Arlington Municipal Airport lacked significant population and employment access to commercial air service since it’s located near Paine Field Airport and that Tacoma Narrows Airport lacks much potential to extend the runway.

Commission seeking feedback on economic priorities

For public outreach the CACC’s site selection process, the the state department of transportation has developed a very narrow subset of questions that feedback is being sought. These include questions about what the “airport of the future” should look like, airport expansion priorities, and corresponding principles for recommendations. Commenters can provide much deeper thoughts on priorities, but they aren’t directly surveyed on them.

Three key options are spelled out in the survey on airport expansion:

  • “Building increased aviation capacity at a new airport or existing airports to meet projected demand, which requires funding and creates certain environmental impacts.”
  • “Continue operating with our current airport facilities; not meeting forecasted demand could create schedule delays for passengers and cargo, limited opportunity for economic growth tied to the aviation industry, and the potential for environmental impacts from planes waiting to land.”
  • “Building increased aviation capacity to meet projected demand, but only doing so if the environmental impacts from aircraft emissions and noise can be significantly mitigated.”

The three options are curiously laid out to hide the no build option in the middle and make the no build option seem dire for the region. It assumes that there aren’t other options and that establishing a new major airport will have lower environmental impacts and better economic consequences, which are deeply flawed assumptions. In addition, the survey oddly has an entire section on the “airport of the future” to test opinions about more regional service airports and zero emissions planes, which are expected to have seriously limited capacity and benefits during the planning period of the study — which are points emphasized in the survey.

Ultimately, the outreach effort omits the contexts for urban growth, synergistic and supporting transportation, and alternative investments like freight rail and high-speed rail while heavily boxing in what the public can weigh in on. The outreach effort also seems to paper over grave environmental issues that any new airport would pose to communities.

It’s further worth emphasizing that the public comment period is very short, running only through October 3rd. Two weeks is exceedingly short for public outreach on such a critical policy planning process.

Next Steps

With all of this in mind, the CACC must deliver a final recommendation by February 15, 2023. In the interim, the body is expected to shortlist two locations by September 15, 2022. Public comment on the survey will remain open through October 3rd.

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Stephen is an urban planner with a passion for sustainable, livable, and diverse cities. He is especially interested in how policies, regulations, and programs can promote positive outcomes for communities. Stephen lives in Kenmore and primarily covers land use and transportation issues for The Urbanist.

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NiMa

https://www.google.com/maps/d/edit?mid=1XAVuNedbPvzMOXcu_Ts35OFaKZok9yBZ&usp=sharing

IMO this would be the best spot. But literally just taking over the Cemetery at SeaTac would provide more than enough expansion room.

RossB

The forecasts for air travel remind me a lot of similar forecasts for automobile travel. Doubling of air freight? Get real. We need to dramatically reduce the amount of stuff that gets shipped by plane. We need to tax it, heavily, and put the money into improving other, far more energy efficient ways to ship things. If it takes a week for you to get your stuff, so be it.

NMH

Another study that disregards climate change. How about none of the above?

AJ M

Both climate change and ‘do nothing’ are explicitly called out in the survey.

Stephen Fesler

Climate change is not called out in the survey.

Mary

I vote South Lewis County

asdf2

I read somewhere online that most of the small-plane general aviation aircraft are still powered by leaded gas. The last thing we need is more of these planes flying over us, spewing out lead into the air.

And that’s not even getting into the impact of flying on climate change. As far as hobbies go, flying planes is one of the most carbon intensive I can think of, right up there with snowmobiling.

AJ M

The last page of the survey was most interesting as they speculated on the impact of electrification of aviation. It’s plausible that widespread electrification might actually make general aviation far more widespread as taking a short flight is competitive with sitting in freeway traffic (or closed mountain passes, or long ferry queues) and operators like Kenmore air flourish. The geography of the region (Puget Sound, Cascades) means that for many longer trips “as the crow flies” is much more direct than ground transportation. Air needs only a minor growth in mode share to drive the numbers discussed here.

Ronman Ron

As a local student pilot, flight operations out of any of these airports should not be increased, especially KTIW. KTIW is a perfect airport for flight training and there are already too much activity from airplanes there. The controllers in the tower are overloaded everyday, and this should not increase. Also if the airport would be expanded, bigger jets would fly in, and would be a nuance to smaller aircraft because of wake turbulence, and it would be a noise hazard to all the surrounding areas. We also don’t need more people moving to gig harbor, this would cause even more traffic on the already bad highway 16 through Gig Harbor.

Ronman Ron

Also a waste of taxpayer dollars

Carlos Batista

I vote for Bremerton

asdf

Bremerton and Shelton are too far west from the largest population centers and on small highways far from rail. Narrows is too small, and Arlington is close to PAE. The answer has to be expansion at PAE + either a second runway and commercial terminal on the east side of McChord Field, or, Olympia airport, which is 1 mile from I-5 and near the train line for Amtrak and freight connections.

Common Sense

So everyone can just continue to drive from the Olympic Peninsula and south I-5 area to SEA? Yea, that makes a lot of sense.

Not everyone lives in the core I-5 area. I do agree that expanding PAE is a good option, but something is needed out west and south. It takes 2.5 hours (good case) to get to SEA from Port Angeles, Sequim, Port Townsend, etc. It makes sense to build something out west that isn’t soo far over (e.g. Bremerton).

asdf

Bremerton has never had commercial service to my knowledge. Horizon dropped CLM (Port Angeles) to SEA after many years in 2003, for lack of sufficient demand. Kenmore Air picked it up with their smaller planes, and dropped it in 2014. A start-up airline is going to start CLM-SEA this summer with 9-seat planes, same size as Kenmore’s. I agree it’s a long trip from the Peninsula to SEA or PAE, but if there was sufficient air demand to beat out the Bremerton Airporter, the Dungeness Line, Clallam Transit to the ferry in Winslow, or driving to SEA, it would be served. There are three times as many people in Pierce and Thurston County as there are in Clallam, Jefferson and Kitsap together = more passengers and more cargo customers.

asdf

Olympia airport’s 2013 master plan even includes airside upgrades and space planned for commercial terminal expansion. Perhaps WSDOT should just take that win.

AJ M

That would presumably provide only 1 of the 3 ‘runways’ worth of expanded capacity? Expansion at Olympia might be paired with expansion at Paine and commercial operation at a 3rd airport (Bremerton or T Narrows?) to collectively create sufficient capacity to meet the projected demand.

Unless there is a major expansion at Paine to get it to 3 runways (a plausible outcome), I think the most likely outcome is a 3 pronged expansion of Paine, Olympia, and a Kitsap peninsula airport (Bremerton or Narrows). That will allow for political goodies to be spread around and give most of the population easier access to most major destinations. Arlington might be drafted to serve cargo operations to help create capacity at Paine.

Pam

Bremerton is on Hwy 16, so there is a multi-lane highway. There is also ferry service to Seattle and back.

AJ M

Narrows seems to have the best location. I see its location west of the narrows as a plus, not a minus, as it allows for the Kitsap and Olympic travelers to avoid metro Seattle traffic while still being close enough to be a useful alternative for western Pierce. SR-16 is a full fledged freeway so I see that location plugging into freight networks just fine, and transit access should be straightforward; KT can use the airport as the terminus for route(s), and PT can run an express shuttle on HOV lanes from the airport to Tacoma Dome to plug into the broader transit system. With half the flight paths going over the water and low density residential, it’s ideal from a noise pollution standpoint.

If the idea is to use the airport as an anchor for economic growth, Bremerton is clearly the best location given the large MIC surrounding it, but unlike passenger traffic, freight traffic is going to want to remain on the east side of the Sound. Bremerton could be a compelling option if Boeing or the Air Force wanted to shift operations to Bremerton to free up capacity at Paine, Boeing, or McCord for commercial/freight operations.

TransitRider

One correction: PAE has 24 slots. Alaska Airlines has 18, and the other 6 were for United Airlines, which is suspending/ending its service on October 5, 2021.

Charles Cooper

I’m going to suggest something crazy and it will be sure to foment hate mail from my urbanist friends.

Site the next regional airport at Bremerton, and bridge Puget Sound in multiple places.

A Joy

NIMBYs hate that plan too. Bainbridge Islanders in particular have aggressively fought any plans for a bridge between Winslow and Seattle.

Common Sense

@Charles Cooper – I lived on the Oly Pen for 3 years and I can say without a doubt that I 100% support Bremerton as a regional airport and more bridges in the Puget Sound. You are spot on.

It feels like Washington is trying to stop growth on the Oly Pen by blocking its access. They are limited by floating bridges, constrained highways, and lots of ferries. I’m all about good urban planning and limiting growth to UGAs … but transportation should be equitable.

Pam

I don’t know about the bridges. We couldn’t even get one from Gig Harbor to south King County. But, I agree with the Bremerton location.

Charles Cooper

That looks like the ticket.