Western Washington needs to start planning for a second regional commercial airport N-O-W

You have probably felt it in the increased traffic you sit in, the rising rent you pay or the construction cranes visible on the skylines of Seattle and Bellevue, but the Seattle area has been the fastest growing large metropolitan region in the United States for each of the last three years.

You also might have experienced congestion on the airport drive and longer security lines at Sea-Tac Airport, as the airport is also experiencing tremendous growth. Sea-Tac Airport has similarly been the fastest growing large commercial airport in the United States for each of the last three years. In 2016, over 45 Million passengers traveled through Sea-Tac, making it the ninth busiest airport in the country.

Every new international flight out of Sea-Tac brings ads over $86 Million a year to our local economy. Having an international airport with connections all over the country and the world is not only convenient for local travelers, it helps our region attract businesses and create jobs. Last year, the Port Commission approved over $2.4 Billion (Billion, with a B!) new capital projects at the airport to accommodate this growth, including a new International Arrivals Hall and a renovated and expanded North Satellite.

These capital projects, however, are meant only to address current growth. Population growth numbers project that commercial aviation passenger traffic in the Seattle area will grow by 20 Million, to 65 Million passengers a year, by 2035. The only problem is, Sea-Tac likely does not have the capacity to handle that growth.

Sea-Tac Airport has a land area of approximately 2.5 square miles. That compares with Dallas-Fort Worth and Denver International airports, each of which have land areas of over 40 square miles. Yet, Sea-Tac is among the top ten busiest airports in the country, just like DFW and DIA.

Even current growth is putting a significant strain on neighborhoods around Sea-Tac Airport. That is why I have been a vocal advocate of the Port of Seattle needing to do more to address and mitigate the airport’s negative impacts on surrounding communities. I have championed both a $5 Million tree planting fund for Burien, Sea-Tac and Des Moines, and an aviation biofuels initiative at Sea-Tac Airport.

The tree planting fund will increase tree canopies in neighborhoods around the airport to provide better sight and noise buffers and help filter air and water to create healthier communities. Aviation biofuels not only reduce greenhouse gases but, importantly for the neighborhoods surrounding Sea-Tac Airport, have been shown in a NASA-sponsored study to reduce particulates in the air by 50-70%. But there is more to do, and as the airport continues to grow the Port needs to redouble its efforts to collaborate with elected officials and community leaders in the Southwest King County cities near the airport.

Over the last two years, Port of Seattle staff has been working on a Master Plan for airport growth. Last year, as Commission President, I convened a series of public roundtables to do a deep dive analyzing airport growth, the policy issues around growth and whether growth is even sustainable at Sea-Tac. These roundtables included land use planners and futurists, passenger airline and air cargo executives, transportation experts, small business owners, environmentalists, and local elected and community leaders, among others.

As airport staff has dived deeper into the Master Planning process, what we are finding is that Sea-Tac likely can only handle growth to 55-59 Million passengers a year. Paine Field in Everett took a major step last year and is moving forward with building a commercial passenger terminal on its airfield with two gates. Alaska and United have already announced that they plan to begin flights out of Paine Field by 2018. That is good news and a step in the right direction, but not enough to handle long-term growth in the region.

The new terminal at Paine Field will be able to handle up to 30 flights a day; Sea-Tac currently handles over 1,300 flights a day. Paine Field likely could handle 5-10 Million commercial passengers a year if the terminal was built out and the airfield fully utilized; Airbus's home airport in Toulouse doubles as a commercial airport and sees over 7 Million passengers a year. But that likely still is not enough to handle growth 20-30 years out and beyond.

Plain and simple: It’s time for regional leaders to start planning for a new commercial airport to handle the growing air transportation needs of the Central Puget Sound. The Port of Seattle can and should be a facilitator of this effort, but discussions need to be held at the regional, and even state, levels.

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