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Is the next major Puget Sound airport in Pierce County? It’s not out of the question

Sept. 22, 2022 Updated Thu., Sept. 22, 2022 at 4:58 p.m.

By Shea Johnson The News Tribune (Tacoma, Wash.)

The next major airport in the Puget Sound could be built in Pierce County, with state and industry officials reviewing two rural sites south of Tacoma as a possible location for new flight operations to accommodate significantly growing traffic at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

Two vacant expanses of land in the unincorporated county — one south of South Creek, the other south of Graham — are among more than a dozen areas throughout the region being explored for the potential home of a new one-, two- or three-runway airport that would be constructed by 2040 and could see upward of 20 million annual passengers.

The potential that the county could become a hub for air travelers and shipments comes amid an ongoing effort by a state Legislature-created group, the Commercial Aviation Coordinating Commission, to identify a single location capable of the massive undertaking, with Sea-Tac expected in coming years to be unable to support estimated growth in passenger and cargo volumes.

State lawmakers developed the commission in 2019 with concerns that another major airport would be needed in the area. The region is projected by 2050 to see 27 million more annual passenger boardings than it can handle and 1.3 million metric tons of air cargo, which is double the current demand, according to a May 2021 study by the Puget Sound Regional Council.

The 15-member coordinating commission — including state officials, private industry representatives and citizen representatives — is expected next month to narrow its preferred choice for a new airport to two potential sites, according to the state Department of Transportation, which provides staff support and technical assistance to the group.

A single option is planned to be decided upon in June.

The group is choosing from a consultant’s list that includes six existing airports for possible expansion or 10 so-called “greenfield” sites, which are undeveloped plots of land, for new construction. All the sites under consideration are within 100 miles of downtown Seattle and west of the Cascade Mountains. Some sites were chosen because they were previously studied or evaluated for a new airport, according to the state Department of Transportation.

During a public meeting in August, state transportation officials cautioned that the effort was in its early stages and it was not a certainty that an airport would necessarily materialize wherever the commission homed in on.

“Currently, there is no project,” said David Fleckenstein, the state’s aviation director and the coordinating commission’s chairman. “So we’re making recommendations back to legislators to act on, potentially, for future expansion of an existing airport or a new airport that would be built 20 years or so in the future.”

The greenfield sites being reviewed include the two in Pierce County and others in Skagit, Snohomish, Thurston, Lewis and King counties. The prospect of a major airport in southern King County, near the Pierce County border, drew pushback from the Enumclaw Plateau Community Association, although Fleckenstein said that state legislation prohibits any sites in King County from being recommended.

While a dozen existing airports were included in the August site selection study performed by consultant Kimley-Horn, Fleckenstein noted that Bremerton National Airport and Snohomish County Airport (Paine Field) had risen to the top. Even so, four other existing airports still remain under consideration, according to Christina Crea, a spokesperson with the state Department of Transportation’s aviation division.

Area representatives raise doubts

“Pierce County East” and “Pierce County Central” were the names given to the two sites under review in Pierce County, and both were deemed among the most equipped for the expected influx of heavy traffic, with projections that they could accommodate 20 and 19 million annual passengers, respectively.

In interviews, state and county officials expressed concerns about a potential airport within the boundaries of their districts.

“Looking around, I’m seeing how it’s not feasible in this area,” said County Council member Amy Cruver, pointing to issues such as inaccessibility to Interstate 5, proximity to Joint Base Lewis-McChord and existing wetlands. “I wouldn’t be happy to have an airport be put in there.”

State Rep. J.T. Wilcox, a Republican who represents the 2nd District, conveyed “somewhat mixed feelings.” An airport would clearly boost employment, land values and general economic activity, but residents who live in the rural and small-town district enjoy their peace, he said.

“The impact of something like this I think would change the character of the area forever,” he said, concluding that he would need to fully understand its projected footprint before taking “an absolute position.”

County Executive Bruce Dammeier said that while an airport would bring economic benefits and travel convenience, he was also aware that its impacts would extend beyond its property lines: There are noise and major infrastructure upgrades to consider, he noted.

“At this point, I’m not absolutely closed to an option in Pierce County, but before I could ever get behind it, we need to see what it is and what it isn’t,” he said.

Republican state Rep. Andrew Barkis could not make himself available for an interview Wednesday due to a scheduling conflict. Messages left with Republican state Sen. Jim McCune’s office were not returned by deadline. Both represent the 2nd District.

Contenders for Pierce County airport

All greenfields and existing airports being considered were scored green, yellow or red by the state’s consultant on more than two dozen criteria that scrutinized land availability, proximity to transportation, environmental impacts and other factors important to determining whether an airport was feasible.

“Pierce County Central,” a six-mile radius of land located south of South Creek in an area inclusive of where state Routes 702 and 7 converge, had the third-fewest major obstacles (a red score) to developing an airport, which tied a site under review in Thurston County, according to the analysis.

The potential location in King County that raised concerns in Enumclaw, and another possible site in Snohomish County, had the fewest significant blockades, the study showed.

The state’s consultant assessed each site based on three options: whether the airport would have one, two or three runways, which dramatically affected how much space would be required. A three-runway airport, for example, would take up 4,600 acres. Its primary 11,000-foot-long runway would be able to serve domestic commercial passengers and international cargo planes, according to the analysis.

In all three scenarios, the “Pierce County Central” site was perceived favorably for its ability to accommodate any airport option, with suitable flat terrain to develop a project of each scale. There are no historical resources, hazardous materials or critical habitats on the site. And for more than three million people, it is within a 90-minute drive — the farthest distance that most people are willing to commute to fly, the analysis said.

In all options, however, the “Pierce County Central” site had the same significant shortcomings:

• Fewer than five miles from military training routes

• Needs more than 11 miles of roadway constructed to connect to Interstate 5

• Too much surrounding land incompatible with development because of noise that could be heard from residential, school or religious institutions

• More than a 60-minute drive from downtown Seattle for cargo carriers

The potential location also faced other issues in the analysis. A three-runway airport, for instance, would require the acquisition of 500 to 1,000 parcels. There are also between 150 to 400 acres of wetlands and floodplains on the site, the analysis found.

Additionally, 22 to 33 percent of the population within a five-mile buffer around the site are people of color, raising concerns about the potentially disproportionate effect an airport could have in the area.

The “Pierce County East” location, a six-mile radius area south of Graham, inclusive of state Route 161, faced the same major obstacles, and others, and ultimately scored in the middle of the pack overall.

Among all sites considered, it would have the fewest impacts to low-income households, yet it scores worse than “Pierce County Central” for proximity to bus rapid transit, existing floodplains, obstacles in the way of approaching planes and cost to develop, the analysis found.

Costs unknown but sure to be ‘very expensive’

Building an airport on the “Pierce County East” site is estimated to cost as little as $200 million to more than $400 million, depending on size, according to the consultant’s analysis. The “Pierce County Central” location could cost less than $200 million to as much as $400 million, again depending on whether it would ultimately be home to a one-, two- or three-runway airport.

In general, existing airports cost more money to build out than greenfield sites because they are in dense, developed areas, making a project more complex, according to the analysis.

But constructing a major airport on vacant land will still be “very expensive,” Fleckenstein said during the public meeting last month, where he noted that it was too early to say how much a new airport would cost. The coordinating commission, he added, has been tasked with coming up with a rough estimate at some point.

It is expected that any project would be bankrolled with local, state and federal dollars and, hopefully, private funds, according to Fleckenstein, who said it was “highly unlikely” that the state Department of Transportation would assume ownership of the airport.

If the coordinating commission were to ultimately pick a greenfield site, he said, it was likely that further review would focus not only on that site but a selection of locations in the vicinity.

Rob Hodgman, senior aviation planner for the state Department of Transportation, noted that local governments will have decision-making authority on whether the endeavor comes to fruition.

“Ultimately, the buck stops with them,” he said during the public meeting last month.

The Federal Aviation Administration also maintains requirements over such a major effort.

“We’re still a long way off,” he said. “We still got a lot of work to do.”

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