Sea-Tac’s growing pains are clear to anyone who’s recently traveled through the airport.
Standstill freeway traffic. Backups at security. Gate shortages. Lines of planes stalled on the tarmac.
This spring, state lawmakers decreed that enough is enough. Puget Sound, they said, needs a new airport.
But should the state build a new airport close to Tacoma or Olympia? Or should it just add a runway to an existing facility, like Bremerton National Airport, Snohomish County’s Paine Field, Arlington Municipal Airport or McChord Field near Tacoma?
Those were some of the options floated last week at the inaugural meeting of a 26-member commission tasked by the legislature with recommending a location for a new airport by 2022 — arguably the most important decision in the long road to relieving the burden of air traffic at Sea-Tac.
For longtime Puget Sound residents, the discussion over a second airport may feel like déjà vû all over again. This is the third time in 25 years state and local officials have entertained the idea of a second airport.
This time, though, they say they’re serious.
For one, legislators wrote into state law earlier this year their preference for an ambitious 2040 deadline for the new airport to be up and running.
But on the question of location, previously a big obstacle to building a second major airport, the options on the table don’t look much better than they did on the last two go-arounds.
It’s unlikely the military would allow commercial flights out of Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
And while Alaska and United Airlines have operated commercial flights out of Paine Field since early this year, lifting a federally imposed 24-flight-per-day cap on the facility could embroil Snohomish County and the airport in a lengthy legal battle with neighbors and environmental groups.
When the idea of building a second airport was first floated in the mid-1990s, opposition from officials and residents in cities and counties where a new airport was proposed was so intense that the proposal was dropped.
That’s left members of the commission tasked with recommending a preferred airport location eager to prevent a similar showdown this time.
“We understand that in this process, we need to be very mindful of the environmental impacts on the communities,” said commission member Rob Hodgman, the state Department of Transportation’s senior aviation planner. “It’s very important that the public have an opportunity to share their perspectives.”
The next time a state commission examined options for a second airport, it had the misfortune to release its report during the Great Recession, crimping lawmakers’ ability to implement any of its suggestions, said state Sen. Karen Keiser at last week’s meeting.
When that study launched in 2005, the Port of Seattle predicted Sea-Tac would be at capacity by 2021, with 45 million annual passengers.
Last year, nearly 50 million people flew into or out of Sea-Tac. And the number of planes landing at the airport is expected to increase by nearly 60% between 2014 and 2034. The Port plans to spend roughly $6 billion by 2027 to expand Sea-Tac to meet that rising demand.