As the state continues its work to mitigate increasing air traffic, Everett’s Paine Field airport has emerged as the top candidate for major expansion. The plan is to expand one or more existing airports to accommodate passenger and cargo aviation while also identifying a location for a new, Sea-Tac-sized airport.
The search proved to be a hot topic in Toledo after the town’s small airport was tapped as a candidate for expansion by the state’s Commercial Aviation Coordinating Commission (CACC). At the behest of locals, county commissioners ultimately rescinded their support for major expansion, instead signaling that smaller improvements within the realm of general aviation would be welcome.
In a meeting Thursday, the CACC reported that Toledo’s airport scored the lowest in terms of travel time, making it an unrealistic option for industry partners. Also highlighted was the Cowlitz Indian Tribe’s opposition to major expansion, as well as environmental concerns, such as how nearby wetlands would be impacted.
The CACC’s presentation also suggested that it was more than local opposition that kept Toledo from serious consideration. Expansion at the Olympia Regional Airport received similar opposition from the Port of Olympia, but CACC commissioner Larry Krauter, also the CEO of Spokane Airports, said the commission should take a second look, potentially overriding local concerns.
“The reality is that that’s a public-use airport. It has accepted federal funds and therefore cannot turn away anyone that would like to serve the airport as a public non-scheduled or scheduled passenger or air cargo service,” he said. “I understand that that may be a difficult conversation with the Port. But this is much bigger than just that.”
Paine Field, on the other hand, already accommodates passenger, cargo and general aviation, the CACC reported. And although the state noted sponsor support, expansion at the airport has previously sparked opposition from residents — much like Toledo — according to news reports.
CACC commissioner Spencer Hanson said, in his opinion, “absolutely Paine Field is the best near-term prospect.”
Bremerton National Airport was also identified as a promising candidate for expansion to support more air cargo demand.
While plans to expand existing airports in Washington begin to crystalize, the question of where a brand-new airport could be built is less clear.
In addition to identifying sites from its shortlist to expand, CACC is also looking for an undeveloped location — or greenfield — to start building a new, potentially Sea-Tac-sized airport.
During Thursday’s discussion, state lawmakers also serving as CACC members pointed to the need to focus efforts on a “greenfield site.”
“Obviously Paine Field is an intermediary facility that we could expand, perhaps partly. But longterm over the next 20, 30 years we need to … be seriously looking at a greenfield site to plan so that you don’t have the encroachment of population density and other facilities,” Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Des Moines, said.
Rep. Tina Orwall, also a Des Moines Democrat, added that funneling increased air traffic to a greenfield site, away from densely populated areas, could soften public health impacts from things like air pollution. On the other hand, some commissioners highlighted CACC’s obligation to first utilize the state’s existing 134 facilities while others argued a new airport would need to be near a city.
And while Commissioner Bryce Yadon warned of major infrastructure costs likely to accrue from a new airport, Krauter argued that in the long-run, continuing to expand existing airports in higher-density areas has a larger social cost than preemptively building a new, full-sized facility.
Other members also offered a sense of urgency in identifying where Washington could build a new site.
“The longer that we wait to take a look at something … those sites fill up,” said Commissioner Tony Bean, director of the Pullman Moscow Regional Airport. “And then all of a sudden it’s restricted.”