The Washington State Department of Transportation’s (WSDOT) Aviation Coordination Commission over the next two years must come up with several potential locations for a Sea-Tac-sized airport to accommodate expected growth in commercial aviation and freight demand over the coming decades. However, the commission faces numerous practical challenges with finding a site large enough that would also be near expected growth areas.
While recent feedback from commission members indicates a preference for greater short-term focus on expanding existing facilities, some members said at the commission’s July 21 meeting that a long-term solution may require significant changes – such as relocating Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM) from its current location along Interstate 5 to central or eastern Washington and using that site for a new airport.
“When we think 40-50 years down the road and you look around the Puget Sound…JBLM provides the acreage and the space,” Washington Aviation Alliance Vice President Warren Hendrickson said.
JBLM has a base population of 210,000, making it the world’s fourth largest military installation. Fort Lewis spans a total of 87,000 acres, while Sea-Tac covers 2,500 acres. The base is located within the central Puget Sound region that includes four of the top five fastest-growing counties in the state.
Right now, WSDOT does not consider joint use of McChord Field to be feasible given a lack of congressional support and its existing military use. A Commission nonvoting member
representing BLM on the commission is Robert Rodriguez, who said that “the command has been very clear there is no interest from the Army side” to relocate.
However, most of the other airport locations evaluated for potential expansion were also considered impractical by WSDOT and the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC) for reasons ranging from travel times to lack of adequate space. The four locations considered viable by WSDOT were the Sanderson Field in Shelton, Bremerton National Airport, Toledo Airport, and the Chehalis-Centralia Airport.
“If travel time is too far or is too far away from the population…we’re not going to really solve the problem,” Rep. Tom Dent (R-13) told colleagues. “If we want to make travel time and ease of access and all these things the way they are now, it’s really going to limit our opportunities to make a difference…in 20,30,40 years. We might have to get…out of our comfort zone.”
The difficulty in selecting a new airport location was perhaps reflected in a commission member survey in which not one of them favored focusing on developing a single Sea-Tac-sized airport. A majority favored a blended approach of expanding existing airport facilities to meet immediate demand while continuing the selection process for another large airport site.
One of the survey comments submitted by members said “a combined approach allows for the
greatest flexibility in taking advantage of existing facilities to ensure maximum utilization while still being mindful of long-term needs that will require new facilities. I believe this gives us the best short and long-term capacity for future planning.”
At the same time, Hendrickson noted that “as you look at…satellite airports that are existing today, ultimately they won’t be able to provide all of the demand that will be required.”
Although the Lewis County Commissioners have expressed strong interest in possibly expanding the Toledo Airport, Hendrickson said the airport would struggle to draw flights so close to the Portland metro area and wouldn’t be located where future growth is anticipated.
“It does need to be in the Puget Sound region, because the statistics show clearly that the originating traffic comes from Puget sound, as opposed to the side of the Cascades.”
Commission member Rudy Rudolph said that moving JBLM is “worthy of at least a discussion. The new airport that we’re asked to look at is a monumental task, but I don’t think it’s any more monumental than the idea of relocating the base.”
However, colleague Josh Brown said, “I don’t think we can be flippant about such a recommendation. I think we have to be very careful with our comments.”
The commission will have to approve a list of six recommended airport locations by January, then identify the top two sites by September 2021. A single preferred site will be chosen by January 2022.