Washington’s next major airport

Washington’s next major airport
A Senate bill would create a state commission to find and recommend a location for a new major commercial airport by 2021, along with a timeline to get the airport up and running by 2040. "Photo: freepik.com

Some state lawmakers think it’s time for Washington to start looking for the location of its next major commercial airport, and a new Senate proposal would hand that task over to a new commission consisting of public and private sector representatives. SB 5370 would create a Commercial Aviation Coordinating Commission to select a preferred spot for the airport by 2021, with the hope of completing it by 2040.

The idea was well received at a Feb. 4 public hearing of the Senate Transportation Committee by local lawmakers representing cities near Sea-Tac International Airport and other local government organizations.

“We think this bill is a first step toward a long-term solution that will serve both the passengers and cargo needs for decades to come,” City of Sea-Tac Deputy Mayor Clyde Hill said.

Sponsored by President Pro Tempore Karen Keiser (D-33) and cosponsored by two Republicans and three Democrats, SB 5370 is a continuation of an ongoing discussion regarding the state’s current and future air cargo capacity. Although the Port of Seattle, which oversees Sea-Tac, wants to double the airport’s cargo tonnage by 2036, it is expected to reach full capacity several years before that.

The latest report from the Joint Transportation Committee released in December also highlights the dangers of waiting until full capacity is reached. The report estimates that Washington’s air cargo will grow by 4.4 percent annually through 2045. By then, the total air cargo value handled is projected to reach $173.6 billion, compared to $47.6 billion in 2015.

However, the report warns that the “effects of congestion become evident long before capacity is reached. In congested conditions, each additional unit of cargo increases costs for everyone and creates higher rates, longer queues, and more unreliability.”

The report ultimately concluded there was insufficient landside capacity, i.e. cargo buildings, to meet the needs of air cargo airports in the state, and that the situation could get even worse if passenger flight demand rises. Further, simply expanding Sea-Tac’s facilities isn’t viable due to increased traffic congestion.

If passed, SB 5370 would set up a commission of nine members representing ports, the state Department of Commerce, WSDOT, and the Freight Mobility Investment Board, among others. The commission would have to determine a single preferred spot for the airport by 2021 and come up with a timeline to get it up and running by 2040.

Keiser told colleagues at the public hearing that it’s time to “fish or cut bait. We have been struggling in this state to make decisions on this issue.”

In support was City of Des Moines Councilmember Robert K. Back, who said the rest of the council “strongly” supported the bill. “This bill is good public policy. It is rational planning for a need we can all see coming.”

He added that beyond capacity issues, “it is prudent not to have our commercial airplane flights so dominated by just one airport” due to the heightened risk of earthquakes in the central Puget Sound area. “It would be wise to have another airport option that would be more easily accessible to the population east, north and west of Seattle.” Although Paine Field is beginning commercial flights, it is also land-restricted, he added.

However, Washington Public Ports Associations Director Eric Johnson told lawmakers that “we need to be very clear in this bill what the job of this commission is to be,” while WSDOT Director of Aviation David Fleckenstein recommended extending the commission’s timeline from January to June 2021.

No further action is scheduled for this bill.

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