By Meghan Hall
Many will point to the affluence of technology and medical firms as the Puget Sound’s main economic drivers, but the Port of Seattle—and SEATAC International Airport—is also a major economic engine in and of itself. But the nation’s eighth busiest airport is also its smallest, and now public officials have begun the legislative process to scout locations for a second airport facility in Washington State.
“I’ve watched the airport develop; I’ve heard the airport develop, and I have seen the impact of the airport on communities in South King County,” said Senator Karen Keiser, who represents the 33rd District, which includes the communities of SeaTac, Kent, Des Moines, Normandy Park and parts of Burien, Wash. “It is an incredible economic engine for the whole state, but the burden does fall disproportionately on the population in South King County. We are at the tipping point now, and we do have to consider where else facilities can be put.”
Keiser, a democrat, is a proponent of SB 5370, which passed in April, will create a state commercial aviation coordinating commission. The 15-member commission will be tasked to determine potential sites for a new commercial airport that would come online in 2040. The commission must highlight six preferred locations by January of 2021, after which a single location will be chosen in January of 2022.
There are numerous considerations that State officials will have to consider when vetting potential new sites, chief among them, a property’s development capacity. The region’s rapid growth has meant that many sites formerly considered for aviation use are no longer available.
“One of the largest [factors] is just the physical location—whether or not there is room,” said Keiser. “I started on this problem more than a decade ago, but one of our issues is that growth has encroached on so many possible locations so that they are no longer possible. We were not able to preserve some of that space in the past, so now we have to reach further afield.”
While locations have not been officially selected yet, other considerations include proximity to local populations, environmental factors and more. Keiser admitted that community pushback is also likely.
“We have to find space so there is a decent buffering of the facility from residential locations, because it has a tremendous impact on human health, human behavior and the value of the assets of residents,” stated Keiser.
While the new facility would include passenger and air freight facilities, SEATAC would remain the state’s international hub. “Nobody is talking about shutting down SEATAC; SEATAC will still be the international hub that it is, but we have to have future aviation capacity beyond SEATAC.”
As of July 2019, SEATAC—which is operated by the Port of Seattle—accommodated 49.8 million passengers and more than 432,000 metric tons of air cargo in 2018. The airport generated $22.5 million in business revenue and 151,400 jobs, representing $3.6 billion in earnings and $442 million in state and local taxes. 32 airlines fly to 92 non-stop domestic and 29 international locations around the world.
And, despite its preeminence in the region, the Port of Seattle is generally supportive of the State’s plans to build a new airport.
“We were supporters of the bill and the Commission formally endorsed the process,” said The Port in a statement to The Registry. “We recognize our state’s current and future commercial air service needs is critical to the success of the state and regional economy and a lack of capacity to accommodate air travel could be a chokepoint on Washington and the Puget Sound’s growth and success. Given the importance of this topic, the Port of Seattle welcomes partnership with the State in addressing long-term planning to meet the air service demands that the economy is creating.”
The Port of Seattle projects that the annual passenger count will exceed 66 million by 2034, and with SEATAC’s available facilities already at capacity, fulfilling the framework laid out by SB 5370 has become imperative, said Keiser.
“Aviation facilities are absolutely critical to a thriving economy, and we have to do a better job of planning for the future so that our economy will also continue to thrive,” said Keiser. “SEATAC has the smallest physical footprint of any international airport in the country, so we’re facing the wall here. But this is a very long-term planning process. An airport isn’t something you can just plunk down.”