The acting chairman of the Commercial Aviation Coordinating Commission said Wednesday that the planning group could make an airport site recommendation to the state sooner than expected but problems with the three locations under review made none likely to move forward.
During a virtual "drop-in session" intended to answer questions from the public, Warren Hendrickson addressed how realistic it is that any of the greenfield sites would be recommended by the CACC.
"I can only speak for myself as a non-voting member, but as the chair, I see low probability," Hendrickson said.
As Hendrickson noted, ultimately the decision would be in the hands of the CACC's voting membership, which stood at 11 people as of last month — many of whom come from established airlines and airports. There would need to be at least 12 members by the CACC's next official meeting on March 2 to satisfy quorum requirements.
Created by the Washington state Legislature in 2019 to identify a site that could house the state's next major airport, the commission is currently on a June deadline for giving its proposal. Hendrickson, who is the senior manager at Olympia Regional Airport, said it was possible that the group's recommendation happens in March.
Hendrickson also told Zoom attendees that he already knew what he planned to do at that upcoming meeting.
"I will make a recommendation based upon my own personal experience over these last few months, that I don't believe that the CACC will serve the public and the nature of the conversation to recommend any of the greenfield sites in Pierce and Thurston counties, based upon the volume of data and feedback we've received thus far," he said.
It is a sentiment that Hendrickson said he had begun to share with CACC members in one-on-one conversations.
His comments reflected major concerns that have been amplified since September when the commission narrowed its site options to three six mile-diameter areas in rural Pierce and Thurston County.
No local governments have been willing to sponsor any of the proposed locations; residents, tribal groups, state representatives and military and other officials have opposed the sites' inclusion in deliberations; and each site has been plagued by issues with viability, such as lacking infrastructure and conflicts with the environment and state law.
Hendrickson rattled off those problems Wednesday, including that the commission had been precluded by state law from recommending any site on or near a military installation that would hurt operations. Joint Base Lewis-McChord has said that a two-runway airport in close proximity would be incompatible with its mission requirements.
"Your voices have been and are being heard loud and clear, and they are having an impact," Hendrickson told meeting attendees.
'Best effort' under tough conditions
Last month, he addressed the House Transportation Committee and noted that each of the three greenfield sites under review had "showstoppers," meaning they may not be viable given certain obstacles.
The CACC, which has received $600,000 from the state for outreach and administrative costs since 2019, was not funded to conduct research or analysis. Instead it has relied on prior studies and on planning work being done concurrently but separately by a consultant for the Washington State Department of Transportation's Aviation Division.
The commission's directive was to find a site where an airport could be capable of accommodating some 27 million annual passengers, in addition to growing demand for air cargo, by 2040 to fill the projected regional gap in those services. Hendrickson said it was the reason why the CACC had not reviewed alternative options, such as rail, and focused its search on finding a site that offered sizable capacity. It is anticipated that state lawmakers would then pick up how to make an airport work.
Talks of a potential new commercial airport in the Puget Sound date back 30 years, and its prospect today has been made more difficult by subsequent growth in the region, according to Hendrickson.
While acknowledging criticisms, he expressed support for the commission's approach, citing the group's review of voluminous data and its "best effort" to keep the public informed. As a deadline nears, he left some unanswered questions with Zoom attendees.
He wondered aloud whether there was a site that would be acceptable to a broad group of people and if it was agreed upon that a deficit of air-travel capacity would restrain regional growth. He cited a projected loss of $31 billion in annual economic impact and 209,000 jobs under a do-nothing approach.
Hendrickson also questioned whether the public was prepared to accept the consequences of taking no action.
"That we will only use Paine Field (Snohomish County Airport) and Sea-Tac as our commercial facilities in the Puget Sound region, regardless of what the long-term costs and delays and demand exceeding capacity are," he said. "There's a whole litany of issues that are attached to that."
The commission has a virtual drop-in session scheduled for 5:15 p.m. Monday, and it is open to the public. Questions and comments may be sent by email to the CACC at CACC@wsdot.wa.gov.