Here’s what airport group decided about possibility of new facility in Pierce, Thurston

After more than three years of investigating potential locations for Washington’s next major airport, a Legislature-created group on Friday didn’t recommend any of three greenfield sites in Pierce and Thurston counties that have been the sources of controversy over the past several months.

In its final meeting before it sunsets June 30, the Commercial Aviation Coordinating Commission voted 11-1 to submit a report to the state that will simply highlight a recent survey that showed most members preferred a yet-to-be-identified greenfield site to house any new aviation facility.

The commission’s decision punctuates the significant environmental and logistical issues that were identified with the three site finalists it targeted in September. Since then, community members, local and state lawmakers, tribal groups and other organizations have criticized the consideration of the areas in or near Graham, Roy and East Olympia, citing fears of hazards to health, quality of life, wildlife and more.

“Nobody wants this in their districts for good reason, because we know better,” Jake Pool, a lead organizer with the Coalition Against Graham and Eatonville-Roy Airports, told the commission prior to the vote. “It’s a hot potato that nobody wants to be burdened with.”

Last month, Gov. Jay Inslee signed a bill, which was born out of local concerns, that created a new working group to take over exploration of Washington’s aviation needs. Inslee also called for refocusing on the potential to expand existing airports to meet a projected future gap in commercial passenger service and cargo capacity, effectively putting the prospect of building from scratch on the back burner.

Inslee vetoed a section of Engrossed Substitute House Bill 1791 that would have disbanded the CACC immediately, however, prompting the commission to move forward with its statutory obligation to report its findings to the state by a June 15 deadline, according to Chairman Warren Hendrickson.

“I think it was clear what the Legislature and the governor had in mind by replacing this commission with the working group,” said CACC voting member Arif Ghouse, director of Paine Field (Snohomish County Airport), adding that the commission should transfer its research and decision-making to the new group.

Survey sheds light

During the virtual and in-person hybrid meeting — the first to offer physical attendance since the COVID-19 pandemic began — the attitudes of commission members came into focus.

The vast majority said they believed that Paine Field, which was being considered for recommendation to expand, would continue to add commercial capacity regardless of whether the CACC opted to name it its preferred site.

But most believed that only building a new airport, and not expanding existing airports alone, would be sufficient to meet an estimated commercial passenger capacity shortfall of 27 million by 2050, according to results of a survey submitted by 16 voting- and non-voting members.

Thirteen of 14 members who answered said that the greenfield site on which to develop a new airport had yet to be identified. One member chose the more western option of two sites under consideration in Pierce County. The results did not specify how each member responded.

Largely, members said they did not wish to recommend that the state take no action to address growing aviation demands. Most said that the inability to review sites in King County or locations near or on a military base had hindered the process, according to survey results.

At least two members suggested employing a joint military-civilian airport strategy.

The vast majority of members did not think that Yakima Air Terminal-McAllister Field should be the preferred site for a new aviation facility, despite the city’s interest. Hendrickson previously expressed concerns about the logistics of transporting tens of thousands of people each day to the airport.

Members were split on whether any new airport could be operational by 2040, which was the timeline set in the 2019 legislation that created the CACC and gave it its duties. Most said that efforts by lawmakers to replace the commission — the survey was conducted prior to the passage of EHSB 1791 — would have no bearing on their willingness or ability to reach a recommendation.

“The Legislature has all but ensured the sunset of the CACC without consideration of it’s work,” wrote one member who disagreed.

Aviation future debate to continue

The lone no vote to Friday’s decision came from CACC member Steve Edmiston, a citizen representative, who said he preferred making no recommendation and stipulating that all work performed by the commission be transferred to the new working group.

Member Larry Krauter, the CEO of Spokane International Airport, who initiated the vote to essentially let the survey speak for itself, assured that all commission work was publicly accessible.

The CACC will now move forward with delivering the survey results in a report to the state. Henrickson acknowledged that it will miss its June 15 deadline. Prior to the vote, opponents of recommending an airport site in Pierce or Thurston counties declared that it was time to move on.

“We need a fresh start,” said Rep. Jake Fey, D-Tacoma, a prime sponsor of EHSB 1791, who said that recommending either of the three greenfield sites would merely ignite anxieties in people who have felt imposed upon. “I think it’s time to provide some relief to those communities.”

Amy Reynolds, a life-long resident of Thurston County, implored the CACC not to add insult to injury following what she described as an inadequate public engagement process.

“You have clearly heard from elected officials, local, county, state, and all the residents living in and near greenfield sites that you have identified,” she said, “that they are not interested in having an airport there.”

Hendrickson said the CACC understood that communities have felt threatened during what he called a “very difficult task.” He noted that feedback has been important to the process and that the CACC on Friday was only preparing to provide a report — what happens to it will be up to lawmakers and the public to decide, he said.

“The debate and conversation, I guarantee, will continue,” Hendrickson said.

Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Des Moines, sponsored the 2019 bill that created the CACC and she opposed EHSB 1791 for “kicking the can down the road.” She volunteered to file a minority report in response to the CACC’s decision but was told she may not because she’s a non-voting commission member.

“Obviously, I am disappointed in the final outcome here,” she said. “I understand this is never over until it’s over, but I wanted to thank all of you because this is an important, essential effort for the future for commercial aviation and our regional economy.”

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story misstated the CACC’s vote tally.