SeaTac Airport
Alaska Airlines flight operations at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (Photo: Atomic Taco, reproduced under a Creative Commons license)

Yes­ter­day, respond­ing to the loom­ing wind-down of the Com­mer­cial Avi­a­tion Coor­di­nat­ing Com­mis­sion, the Seat­tle Times pub­lished an edi­to­r­i­al titled “NIM­BY­ism over­bur­dens America’s best air­port,” lament­ing that “the search for a new air­port has end­ed with­out a pro­posed site.”

The CACC, formed in 2019, was tasked with rec­om­mend­ing a loca­tion for a new air­port in the Seat­tle area. By the time the most recent leg­isla­tive ses­sion rolled around, the Com­mis­sion had put togeth­er a short­list of final­ists for what it deemed accept­able sites. How­ev­er, none of those sites were actu­al­ly acceptable.

Local elect­ed offi­cials, com­mu­ni­ty lead­ers, neigh­bor­hood orga­niz­ers, and tribes all spoke out in what the Times’ Dominic Gates called “fero­cious” oppo­si­tion to each of the pro­posed loca­tions. The Leg­is­la­ture sub­se­quent­ly decid­ed to dis­band the CACC and replace it with a work­group that has no man­dates or deadlines.

Gov­er­nor Jay Inslee signed the CACC replace­ment bill and used his line item veto pen to kill off a pro­vi­sion that would have instruct­ed the group to look at build­ing a brand new air­port as well as expand facil­i­ties at the state’s exist­ing airports.

“Inslee hopes instead to focus on expand­ing exist­ing infra­struc­ture,” the Times edi­to­r­i­al board com­ment­ed. “But exist­ing infra­struc­ture can only expand so far.”

Sev­er­al pas­sages lat­er, the edi­to­r­i­al end­ed with this exhor­ta­tion: “State and region­al offi­cials need to go back to the draw­ing board and find an accept­able site for a sec­ond air­port before NIM­BY­ism breaks the back of the great one we have.”

By “sec­ond air­port,” the Times means a brand new air­port some­where in the vicin­i­ty of the City of Seat­tle. Puget Sound actu­al­ly already has many oth­er air­ports that can accom­mo­date jet air­craft besides SeaT­ac, like Boe­ing Field in Seat­tle, Paine Field in Everett, Ren­ton Munic­i­pal in Renton.

How­ev­er, none of those air­ports would be able to accom­mo­date the mas­sive pro­ject­ed growth in pas­sen­ger air traf­fic either. Hence the Times’ exhor­ta­tion that offi­cials “need to go back to the draw­ing board and find an accept­able site.”

The prob­lem? That’s not an action­able directive.

Here’s the real­i­ty: There is no “accept­able site” for a big brand new air­port any­where in this region, and no amount of research, plan­ning, or con­sul­ta­tion can change that. The state could spend a for­tune on more stud­ies and out­reach and it would­n’t make a dif­fer­ence. The out­come in five years or ten years would be no dif­fer­ent than what we saw with the CACC in the last few months.

There sim­ply isn’t pub­lic sup­port for cre­at­ing anoth­er SeaT­ac near urban­ized Wash­ing­ton, because it would be social­ly and envi­ron­men­tal­ly destructive.

Even com­mu­ni­ties with Repub­li­can lead­er­ship and plen­ty of right wing res­i­dents under­stand the fol­ly of a new air­port. This is not NIM­BY­ism, it’s con­cern for Wash­ing­ton’s future. What the peo­ple of this region clear­ly under­stand — but many com­men­ta­tors and plan­ners seem not to — is that the con­struc­tion of a new air­port would­n’t just entail build­ing some run­ways and terminals.

Look at the foot­print of SeaT­ac or any major metro air­port, and you’ll see park­ing lots, ware­hous­es, hangars, rental car facil­i­ties, petrol sta­tions, and the like.

And, of course, highways.

Big air­ports have mul­ti-lane high­ways going to them, because peo­ple have to be able to get to and from an air­port and no juris­dic­tion I know of has insist­ed on a tran­sit only approach for ground trans­porta­tion at their airport.

(I’ve flown in and out of a lot of dif­fer­ent air­ports all over this coun­try and across the world, and have yet to be in one that was only served by mass transit.)

A big new con­ven­tion­al­ly built “green­field” air­port out in the exurbs would thus result in a mas­sive amount of addi­tion­al sprawl… an out­come that is total­ly incom­pat­i­ble with our growth man­age­ment and cli­mate action goals.

It was par­tic­u­lar­ly amus­ing to read Steve Edmis­ton, a CACC mem­ber inter­viewed for Dominic Gates’ arti­cle, say: “We do not want to expand air­fields over exist­ing pop­u­la­tions… My focus as a cit­i­zen rep was pub­lic health and the envi­ron­ment. We’re just not going to get it right if we keep focus­ing on urban areas.”

Again, build­ing a new air­port in an exur­ban or rur­al area will cause a mas­sive amount of new sprawl because the new air­port won’t be close to exist­ing com­mu­ni­ties. Imag­ine all the devel­op­ment that var­i­ous inter­ests would want to do along the high­way con­struct­ed to fun­nel traf­fic in and out of the new air­port. The neg­a­tive impacts to pub­lic health and the envi­ron­ment would be enormous.

Read­ing the Times’ edi­to­r­i­al yes­ter­day remind­ed me of encoun­ter­ing some old columns and edi­to­ri­als years ago cheer­ing for more and big­ger high­ways when I was doing research for one of the install­ments in our Flash­back series.

As I sift­ed through old news­pa­pers on micro­film, I read about some of the bat­tles from years past. Like the doomed effort to build the R.H. Thom­son Express­way:

Plans for the R. H. Thom­son Express­way dat­ed from the 1950s as part of an envi­sioned “ring road” sys­tem of inter­lock­ing free­ways sur­round­ing Seat­tle’s cen­tral core, includ­ing SR 99, I‑5, and planned east-west high­ways along the routes of Spokane Street and NE 50th Street.

The pro­posed north-south express­way east of I‑5, even­tu­al­ly named for long-time City Engi­neer Regi­nald Heber Thom­son (1856–1949), would have fol­lowed the gen­er­al route of Empire Way (now Mar­tin Luther King Jr. Way) from Ren­ton through South­east and Cen­tral Seat­tle. After a major inter­change with I‑90, plans called for it to head north as a lim­it­ed access high­way, cut­ting through the Wash­ing­ton Park Arbore­tum and link­ing to SR 520 and I‑5.

The high­way would then dip under the Mont­lake Cut and re-emerge near Uni­ver­si­ty Vil­lage, with a link to an east-west express­way cut and tun­neled along the route of NE 50th Street, before pro­ceed­ing north to Lake City.

The Express­way nev­er end­ed up get­ting built. By the 1970s, a lack of pub­lic sup­port caused the plans to be jet­ti­soned, mem­o­rably leav­ing a set of “ramps to nowhere” in the Wash­ing­ton Park Arbore­tum that are being removed as part of WSDOT’s State Route 520 Mont­lake inter­change mod­ern­iza­tion project.

Back then, there were those who said that we need­ed those high­way projects to accom­mo­date “future pro­ject­ed growth.” Sound familiar?

The Times notes: “Sea-Tac offi­cials hope to start a total of 32 projects total­ing $10 bil­lion by 2032. Aggres­sive though it sounds, it’s nowhere near enough. Even if they suc­ceed, the air­port will still cap out at an annu­al capac­i­ty of 65 mil­lion, air­port offi­cials say. Yet by 2050, vol­ume is expect­ed to dou­ble to 100 million.”

At no point does the edi­to­r­i­al chal­lenge these growth assump­tions. It assumes we’re locked in to such a future and must deal with a mas­sive traf­fic increase.

But what if we choose a dif­fer­ent path? What if we decide as a region that we don’t want vol­ume to dou­ble? What if we choose a con­ser­va­tion strat­e­gy for avi­a­tion instead of a growth at any cost strat­e­gy? What if we com­mit to build­ing high speed rail so that we can quick­ly and effi­cient­ly help peo­ple get to where they want to go with­out need­ing to crowd into an air­borne tube?

Accord­ing to the Port of Seat­tle, most peo­ple who are fly­ing in and out of SeaT­ac are on domes­tic itin­er­aries. In 2022, the total num­ber of pas­sen­gers at the air­port was 45,964,321 (includ­ing yours tru­ly). Over 90% of those were domes­tic pas­sen­gers: 41,582,500. Just 4,381,821 of the pas­sen­gers were international.

SeaTac Airport By The Numbers: 2022
An info­graph­ic cre­at­ed by the Port of Seat­tle look­ing at air­port traf­fic in 2022

Some of that domes­tic vol­ume is to Alas­ka and Hawai’i, of course, which we can’t build high speed rail lines to. But a lot of it is to oth­er places in the Low­er Forty-Eight. Los Ange­les, Chica­go, New York, Mia­mi, Den­ver, Hous­ton, and so on would be exam­ples of major out of region des­ti­na­tions that have Amtrak rail ser­vice now and could have high speed rail in the future, along with cities in Cascadia.

And if you look at the list of dai­ly depar­tures, you’ll see quite a few flights are whol­ly with­in our region. Air­lines like Alas­ka offer numer­ous roundtrips to Van­cou­ver, Port­land, Spokane, Boise, and Red­mond (Bend), for exam­ple. If Cas­ca­dia had high speed rail lines par­al­lel­ing I‑5 and I‑90, many of those flights could be eas­i­ly replaced by rail trips. Par­tic­u­lar­ly for Port­land and Van­cou­ver, going by rail would be faster due to not hav­ing to nav­i­gate air­ports at both ends.

Our research has found plen­ty of sup­port among Wash­ing­to­ni­ans for expand­ing Amtrak Cas­cades in the medi­um term and con­struct­ing a new high speed rail sys­tem in the long term to improve mobil­i­ty in the Pacif­ic North­west. That is where we should direct our ener­gy and resources. The U.S. used to have arguably the world’s great­est rail sys­tem. Nowa­days, Chi­na, Japan, Tai­wan, and Europe are way ahead of us in using rail to pro­vide a great trav­el expe­ri­ence at high speed.

But it’s not too late for us to invest in the mobil­i­ty options we need and deserve.

Take a look at our polling on this top­ic from last year:

Building ultra high speed rail

QUESTION: Wash­ing­ton and Ore­gon are study­ing the pos­si­bil­i­ty of build­ing an ultra high-speed rail line between Van­cou­ver, British Colum­bia and Eugene, Ore­gon cost­ing between $24 and $42 bil­lion that could sup­port trains trav­el­ing at speeds of up to two hun­dred and twen­ty (220) miles per hour. Build­ing the line would require pur­chas­ing a sig­nif­i­cant amount of land to con­struct brand new tracks, but it would allow for faster trips between major Pacif­ic North­west cities. Do you strong­ly sup­port, some­what sup­port, some­what oppose or strong­ly oppose build­ing an ultra high-speed rail line between Van­cou­ver, British Colum­bia and Eugene?


  • Sup­port: 51% 
    • Strong­ly sup­port: 25%
    • Some­what sup­port: 26%
  • Oppose: 41%
    • Some­what oppose: 16%
    • Strong­ly oppose: 25%
  • Not sure: 8%

Making Amtrak Cascades faster

QUESTION: Do you strong­ly sup­port, some­what sup­port, some­what oppose or strong­ly oppose updat­ing and imple­ment­ing Amtrak Cas­cades’ Long Range Plan to elec­tri­fy exist­ing inter­ci­ty rail ser­vice, allow­ing trains to trav­el at up to one hun­dred and ten (110) miles per hour on exist­ing tracks with loco­mo­tives that do not pol­lute, at an esti­mat­ed cost of about $10 bil­lion in state and fed­er­al funds?


  • Sup­port: 62% 
    • Strong­ly sup­port: 34%
    • Some­what sup­port: 28%
  • Oppose: 28%
    • Some­what oppose: 11%
    • Strong­ly oppose: 17%
  • Not sure: 9%

Faster and bet­ter pas­sen­ger rail ser­vice needs to be in our future.

Seat­tle has a long and proud his­to­ry as a leader in avi­a­tion. NPI believes that we can remain an avi­a­tion leader even if we choose a con­ser­va­tion-anchored strat­e­gy to man­age the air traf­fic of the 2030s, 2040s, 2050s.

We don’t agree that fail­ing to build anoth­er big air­port in Puget Sound will mean los­ing out on tons of busi­ness oppor­tu­ni­ties. The fear expressed in Dominic Gates’ arti­cle that those oppor­tu­ni­ties will go else­where is mis­placed. Oth­er states and metro areas are going to be in the same sit­u­a­tion we are, with a pop­u­lace just as unwill­ing to sup­port the con­struc­tion of big new airports.

As Bloomberg’s Justin Fox explained in an arti­cle that ran five years ago:

One expects to encounter gigan­tic new air­ports under con­struc­tion in East Asia, or along the Per­sian Gulf. In North Amer­i­ca, not so much: Den­ver Inter­na­tion­al Air­port, which opened for busi­ness in 1995, is the last big-time, all-new air­port to have been built on this con­ti­nent. Lack of avail­able space near big cities, envi­ron­men­tal con­cerns and polit­i­cal obsta­cles have all stood in the way of build­ing more.

We can pri­or­i­tize inter­na­tion­al flights with our exist­ing infra­struc­ture and upgrades to exist­ing infra­struc­ture to com­pete in that are­na, while work­ing to elim­i­nate domes­tic trips or con­vert them to anoth­er mode, ide­al­ly rail. Doing so will save an enor­mous amount of mon­ey, pre­vent increas­es in pol­lu­tion, and allow us to adhere to our cli­mate action goals rather than mak­ing a mock­ery of them.

About the author

Andrew Villeneuve is the founder and executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, as well as the founder of NPI's sibling, the Northwest Progressive Foundation. He has worked to advance progressive causes for over two decades as a strategist, speaker, author, and organizer. Andrew is also a cybersecurity expert, a veteran facilitator, a delegate to the Washington State Democratic Central Committee, and a member of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps.

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2 replies on “A new Seattle-area airport isn’t feasible — let’s focus on conservation and high speed rail”

  1. Please encour­age peo­ple to see the detailed, pro­posed CHSR cor­ri­dor. Note; this cor­ri­dor pro­pos­al will use the exist­ing “Right-of-Way” as much as pos­si­ble. The curve radius­es will allow train speeds greater than 220 mph.
    Thank you

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