Port of Seattle Commission Taps Brakes on Arrivals Drive Expansion

23
A photo shows an roadway leading to an airport terminal. Colors are used to identify where the roadway will be expanded.
An aerial view of the proposed Arrivals Drive expansion project.

The Port of Seattle’s plan to significantly expand the capacity of the main arrivals drive at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (Sea-Tac) hit a speedbump in late September as most of the members of the Port of Seattle Commission voted to postpone a decision to move forward with design work for the project. Planned to open in 2025 if the current schedule is adhered to, the project would add two lanes to the main segment of Arrivals Drive, bringing the total number of lanes to six, and realign the other roads like Departures Drive to accommodate the widening.

A majority of the Commission expressed frustration with the fact that the Port doesn’t seem to have a very well-developed plan to reduce the percentage of trips to the airport that are made by single-occupancy vehicles and rideshares even as it moves forward with a plan to expand capacity of one of the airport’s key roadways.

Four of the five members of the Port of Seattle Commission voted to delay a formal vote on whether to approve spending an additional $6.9 million to continue design work to their November 9 meeting. That allocation would come after an authorization of $8 million in 2019 to get the project to 30%. The only member to vote against the delay was Commissioner Sam Cho, who also works at Lyft and who had recused himself from a discussion on surface transportation earlier this year because of that fact. Back in 2019, before Cho had joined the Commission, the other four Commissioners had been unanimous in approving the project to move forward with initial design work. But that was also before the project’s estimated cost went up from $50 million to nearly $80 million.

Perversely, the Port of Seattle is touting the expansion of one of the main roadways at Sea-Tac as supporting the mission of the Port to be the “greenest and most energy efficient Port in North America.”

Black and white drawing of a roadway expansion with segments labelled
The nearly $80 million Widen Arrivals Drive project would add two lanes to the existing four to a major segment of the primary arrivals road at Sea-Tac. (Port of Seattle)

Not only did a memo produced for the Commission note that “a byproduct of reduced congestion is a decrease in emissions from vehicles in traffic” but even more remarkably, the State Environmental Protection Act (SEPA) checklist completed by the Port earlier this year contends that the project will cause no net increase in emissions from vehicles using the new arrivals drive, because the project won’t generate any additional vehicular trips even as the road had been operating “at or above capacity” prior to the pandemic. Even when the project is complete, there are no plans to dedicate any of the new lanes to high occupancy vehicles or transit uses.

At the meeting, Commissioner Ryan Calkins highlighted the disconnect between the mode share goals that the Port sets for itself and the lack of an access fee to access the airport when arriving by a single-occupancy vehicle. The Widen Arrivals Drive project is being designed to accommodate a future project to implement access fees at the airport, but the Port has been very slow to develop that program even as it moves forward with this project expanding the roadway. Implementing an access fee was something that Commissioner Calkins discussed during his first campaign for Port Commission. Staff pushed back on a suggestion by Calkins that an access fee could be implemented by the time that this project opens in 2025, noting that the earliest it could be implemented would be 2027. The Arrivals Drive project is advancing separately from the Sustainable Airport Master Plan (SAMP), a suite of projects intended to advance the Port’s sustainability goals.

Aerial view of SeaTac airport
If approved, the Expand Arrivals Drive project would open in 2025 with two additional lanes. (Port of Seattle)

But it was Commissioner Stephanie Bowman who seemed most reluctant to approve the project. “To move forward with widening [Arrivals Drive] without at the same time integrating either transit or some other mode share as part of the planning process, I just can’t support that. I just can’t see how these two things would be separated.” Bowman asked why a dedicated lane for buses or shuttles was not being considered as part of the project, with Port staff insisting that dedicated space for transit would make traffic worse for everyone.

“We’ve been talking about this for years. I’ve been on the Commission six-and-a-half years and I still have not seen a real plan on ground transportation to get people out of single-occupancy vehicles,” Bowman said, after calling out the $80 million price tag on the project.

Commissioner Peter Steinbrueck also pressed staff for see additional analysis showing how the Port can produce increased mode shift, saying he saw only a “typical highway, ‘build it and they will come’ approach.” And Commission President Fred Felleman wanted to see more details on the traffic modeling that the Port used to rule out dedicated space on Arrivals drive for transit or shuttle buses.

Commissioner Calkins tried to paint the project as not a “typical highway or freeway,” noting that demand for Arrivals Drive is driven by the number of tickets sold on planes. But the unique nature of Sea-Tac airport actually heightens the need to take deliberative care with the analysis — the airport is a regional generator of trips in a way that few facilities are, and the decisions made about how people can access it have far-reaching ramifications. The complete lack of analysis shown in the SEPA checklist about how this could impact the Port’s mode share goals shows that the Port is not taking its role here seriously.

Sandra Kilroy, the Senior Director of Engineering, Environment, and Sustainability at the Port, said the Port is committed to addressing emissions from ground transportation and will be pursing strategies to do so “concurrently” to this project, but didn’t list any specific strategies, and fell into talking about a shift to electric vehicles rather than anything the Port has direct control over.

Sea-Tac’s current share of passengers arriving at the airport by transit is around 6%, in contrast with San Francisco at 14%. Port Commission members have been vocal in meetings about wanting luggage racks on Sound Transit trains and improving the rider experience coming to and from SeaTac’s light rail station along the long outdoor walkway on the side of the parking garage.

This project comes as the Washington State Department of Transportation inches forward with planning toward a second regional airport to handle increased demand for air travel in Western Washington. Sea-Tac airport is seeing some of the most rapid increases in greenhouse gas emissions regionally, with a nearly 60% increase in CO2 from air travel seen since 2008, and that doesn’t account for the use of ground transportation to access the airport. In November, we’ll see if the Port provides a better impact mitigation plan that will allow enough Commissioners to feel comfortable moving forward with the major roadway expansion project.

We hope you loved this article. If so, please consider subscribing or donating. The Urbanist is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit that depends on donations from readers like you.

Ryan Packer lives in the Summit Slope neighborhood of Capitol Hill and has been writing for the blog since 2015. They report on multimodal transportation issues, #VisionZero, preservation, and local politics. They believe in using Seattle's history to help attain the vibrant, diverse city that we all wish to inhabit. In December 2020, Ryan started a three-month stint as editor of Seattle Bike Blog.

Subscribe
Notify of
guest

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

23 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
asdf2

Charging a toll to access the pick-up and drop-off area is long overdue. Ideally, the toll would be equivalent to 30 minutes of parking in the terminal garage, removing the financial incentive to wait for people illegally in the pick-up lane vs. just parking in a regular parking space.

Another out-of-the-box idea I would like to see is to use the toll revenue to cut a deal with Sound Transit to make Link fares for travel within the small zone of TIBS->SeaTac->Angle Lake completely free. This would encourage people getting picked up or dropped off to right Link one stop to avoid congestion at the airport itself. It would likely save time for both the passenger and driver, and provide an easy way for people that live in areas with terrible transit to try out the rail system their tax dollars have paid for, but they’ve never gotten to use.

AJ M

At many airports, parking in the main garage for less than 30 minutes is free, to encourage people to use the garage for pick up / drop off. I’d support a small fee to access the airport roads, but I also think short term parking should be free to encourage people to use that space; the curbside space should be a premium option, not the free option.

Not sure about the implications for fare enforcement, but making TIBS-SeaTac-Angle Lake fare free is an intriguing idea.

Another idea might be to simply making having an airplane ticket valid fare, just like having a Mariners or Kraken ticket is (sometimes) a valid fare for Link. For occasional riders, they don’t even need to worry about setting up an Orca card, they can just show their flight ticket. Some technical details to work through (what counts as a valid ticket, etc.), but if we can do it with major sporting events, can we do it with the airport?

jas

Interesting idea for airplane ticket holders to get a free ride.

But why not extend it further? If toll money, or some sort of airport-fee-per-ticket, is collected to make the ride from Angle Lake or TIBS free, then why not make it so that your airport ticket gets you a ride from anywhere on link to the airport for free?

All you would have to do is show your airline ticket to a FEO/Concierge and if it’s within a certain time frame (4 hours?) of departure – you’re golden. They could do this right now if they wanted

But really ST is going to want a more ‘exact’ way of counting to make sure the appropriate fare monies are transferred from the port to ST.

maybe each ticket has a unique link code on it that a passenger enters at any pay station, which then issues a single link ticket for that ride.

Anyway I’m sure they could come up with something.

great idea asdf2!

jas

I wonder though if they start charging a drop off fee that is greater than the cost of the LINK ride from TIBS or Angle Lake to SEA then all of a sudden does that make TIBS and Angle Lake the preferred drop off points for people? I don’t know if those stations could handle the vehicle traffic heh.

Brian N.

According to google maps, right now an Uber ride from Northgate to SeaTac is about 40min. The light rail is about 70min. You’re shaving 30 min off your travel day and getting door-to-door service. For me, that’s an easy choice.

Andrew

I think she’s talking about getting dropped off via a private vehicle at TIBS or Angle Lake, then taking the light rail. Not light rail v. uber

Edit: Also isn’t that going to be about a $40 Uber? At least?

Last edited 9 days ago by Andrew
Scott

Logically, if one is getting dropped off by a friend, then the total trip time is actually 90 minutes: 60 minutes for the driver to do a round-trip and 30 for the one flying. Uber/Lyft win when only comparing time, but lose big against light rail when comparing time x cost. Now, if SeaTac put a modest toll on the pickup/dropoff lanes, light rail would be the clear choice for all but the 1%. And if the toll were such that the 1% took light rail, the station would be inside the terminal, like it is in PDX. I hope the commish puts someone in the admin on the hot seat and lights a fire under their feet. We don’t have much time left to drastically reduce GHG emissions and transportation is the biggee to attack.

Stephen Fesler

It’s 54 minutes by light rail, so the differential isn’t all that great. But the cost is.

Brian N.

According to the Sound Transit trip planner it takes 1hr 6min to get from the Northgate TC to the airport. And yes, the convenience comes at a cost but if you’re traveling with your kids/family or if it’s a reimbursable business travel expense then that cost may very well be worth the convenience.

Stephen Fesler

It’s 49 minutes plus five minutes for the walk is 54 minutes. The walk doesn’t take 19 minutes regardless what the trip planner erroneously states. Not even close. I can absolutely confirm the trip planner is wrong because I literally did this trip the other day. I also really wonder who plans on the perfect drive-time to the airport and doesn’t dramatically fudge it with 50% more time for traffic outside of a 5am trip. But I guess it must be a person who has little concern about missing a flight or other check-in problems.

asdf2

There is another factor. If you’re traveling to the airport by car and have a plane to catch, you have to allow substantial padding time in case you hit traffic on either I-5 or the airport pick-up/drop-off lane. By Link, you know exactly how long the trip is going to take, so you don’t have to allow that extra 20 minutes for traffic. If the “car” is a rideshare vehicle, you also have to add in yet more padding time in case the driver is late or cancels the right at the last minute and you have to find another one.

All in all, for someone who lives by Northgate or Roosevelt Station, the answer to the ultimate question – what time do I need to leave home to catch a 3:00 flight – is pretty much exactly the same whether you go by light rail or Lyft/Uber. But taking the light rail will be far, far cheaper.

jas

If you look at ST’s schedule Northgate to seatac is about 49 minutes. Not as fast, but cheaper than an Uber ride. 1 Line – Northgate – Angle Lake | Sound Transit

Brian N.

You and Stephen are looking past the additional walking times. Sound Transit’s trip planner adds an additional 17 min in walk time to account for the transit center to light rail walk and the airport station to airport walk.

jas

Do they have a study showing how many more riders will arrive by LINK after the extension to Federal Way, and then Tacoma is complete? It seems like they will pick up some mode share there?

It also seems like they should route all transit off of the arrivals drive, and instead figure out a dedicated lane a level down where the shuttles pick up and drop off.

And putting the train station where it is didn’t help anything either. Maybe they should work on figuring out another place to put it that is more convenient, or where a second station could be put if a West Seattle – Burien – Renton Line is built. And yeah this would be big bucks.

I also like the idea of running light rail to the airport earlier than it is now to accommodate those early flights. Does ST really need all that time every morning to do maintenance?

Or how about creating another drop off area at, or near, the car rental facility and building a new people mover/airport subway from there to the terminal? That might get a lot of cars out of arrivals drive, but again would be expensive. Might be worth it though. They could even start charging a drop off fee to pay for it.

Stephen Fesler

Port of Seattle didn’t bother to show any of their work and it’s not clear where they’re at in developing plans for activate transportation. It was a “trust us” kind of effort by staff even going as far to say that prioritising non-private vehicles would make things worse than their expansion proposal with absolutely nothing to back up those assertions. It was embarrassing for them and Commissioners didn’t respond well to it.

Last edited 9 days ago by safesler
asdf2

One would think that all those new Link stations that either just opened last week, or are planned to open within the next 10 years would increase the transit modeshare beyond the 6% figure it’s at right now. Even STRIDE might potentially move the needle by a percent or so. To not even consider this in long-term planning is inexcusable.

Charles Cooper

It would seem the Port Staff is recalcitrant in their orientation to cars as the primary mode of transportation. It seems the Commissioners get it. Perhaps they need to tell staff in no uncertain terms to change their thinking.

I agree Sound Transit could help by installing more robust luggage solutions. They could also make the 1 Line (Green) 24/7/365 to facilitate it as a practical mode choice for more people. Right now, 5 or 6 am departing flights are not feasible to use transit unless you want to arrive at the airport during the late evening before your flight.

The opening of Northgate Station and in the future, Lynnwood Link, gives great opportunities for people to be dropped off or picked up close to the suburbs they are coming from and saves their friends lots of travel time going to/from the airport.

On the airport side, they should invest in making the pathway between the train station and the airport much more hospitable. Enclose it from the weather and install moving walkways. If the existing pathway is not suitable for a moving walkway, create a new one by building on the exterior of that floor.

Jon Mathison

Hear Hear! Enclosing the train to arrival/departure pathway and installing moveable walkways is absolutely the right move. A heated coffee stand(s) along the walkway also might not be such a bad idea in Seattle…

Commissioner Ryan Calkins proposed access fee to access airport roads seems perfect. A $5 fee to access the pick-up area and $5 fee to access the drop-off area would move many people towards taking transit and hopefully negate the need for this road-widening boondoggle. Seems a toll booth could be implemented in a period of weeks if not days.

Port Staff is recalcitrant in their orientation to cars as the primary mode of transportation. This disservice must change very soon. Some exceedingly poor engineers must be shown the door. God I hope they are not P.E.s as they work in direct opposition to the NSPE Code of Ethics for Engineers.

Scott

I’ve always been curious about how decision to locate the station at SeaTac came about. Was it the result of the taxi lobby?

Martin

The trip from Link to the International check-in terminals is quite a ways. What about a people mover/cable liner to connect the rental car facility, Link station, and the North and South parts of the airport?

J.S.

If they want to expand capacity and minimize pollution from cars waiting in line then they should make the cell phone lot bigger. Seriously that lot is a joke, not even half the size that it needs to be.

That said I fail to see how adding more travel lanes solves anything when the bottleneck is the arrival/departure terminal itself. Both of which are two lanes only, plus the unloading lane. So all they are inducing is even more people trying to change lanes at the last minute. Since anyone in the two new lanes would find they end before the terminal. Thus increasing congestion.

Stephen Fesler

Watching the Commission meeting, it seemed like the proposal for expansion really was more a reflection of a staff culture oriented around automobiles than any sort of genuine need. When you’re out of ideas and allergic to active transportation, the only solution to a problem becomes expanding roads and emissions.

A Joy

Seatac’s cell phone lot is larger than many airports much bigger in size. Major airports in foreign countries don’t have any cell phone lot by and large.