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.
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.
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.
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.