Recommendation for major new airport coming by 2022

A big moment for Puget Sound air travel came in March, when commercial flights began at Everett's Paine Field.

Passengers who live in the North Sound now have a new option.

"This is the greatest thing, not to have to travel all the way to Sea-Tac," passenger Richard Burns told KIRO 7 on the first day.

Only a few commercial flights use Paine Field, which means it won't solve our region's air travel crunch.

Many metropolitan areas have more than one major airport, and with Sea-Tac Airport setting passenger records and growing more crowded, there's a new push to look beyond it for our air travel future.

This week, Gov. Jay Inslee signed a bill creating a commission to figure out where to put a new major airport.

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It was sponsored by Sen. Karen Keiser, a Democrat from Des Moines.

In Keiser's district around Sea-Tac, people feel the impact of plane noise and pollution.

"We are really at near capacity at Sea-Tac Airport and it's the smallest international airport in the country with no room to grow so we have got to figure out some options here," Keiser said.

The governor will appoint commissioners, who are required to come up with a list of six possible airport locations by Jan. 1, 2021.

It must be narrowed to two options by Sept. 1, 2021, with a single preferred location decided by Jan. 1, 2022.

"We have to do environmental studies, we have to work with our communities, a lot of pieces are in play, but if you don't make that first determination of potential sites you can't even get started," Keiser said.

So where might a new airport go?

One idea is 180 miles east of Seattle in Moses Lake.

"We look on it very seriously. We've done quite a bit of due diligence," said Jeffrey Bishop, executive director of the Port of Moses Lake.

The port owns a giant five-runway airport at a former Air Force base.

It's used mostly for flight training in a town too small for commercial service.

The airport does export cherries, and Bishop says year-round cargo operations in Moses Lake could relieve pressure at Sea-Tac.

He also says Moses Lake could work as a passenger hub similar to Narita Airport in Japan, which is about an hour from Tokyo by train.

"We've been looking at it from a time standpoint, not necessarily a distance standpoint," Bishop said. "If you can get from Moses Lake to Seattle within an hour, then I certainly think from an international model, that fits in those parameters."

The Inslee administration is studying how bullet trains running more than 200 miles per hour could connect Portland, Seattle and Vancouver, B.C.

An eastward extension to Spokane could theoretically stop in Moses Lake.

"Is it cheaper to build a high speed rail connection and to build this airport or is it cheaper to start from scratch?" Bishop said.

A Moses Lake airport connected by bullet train was studied and rejected more than 25 years ago.
In fact, there have been a lot of studies, and fights, over the years about new airports.

In 1994, meetings of the Puget Sound Regional Council drew protests as local officials considered several Western Washington sites for new airports.

The list was eventually narrowed to Arlington and Marysville in Snohomish County and Tanwax Lake in Pierce County.

Under intense opposition, that planning effort died, and instead, a third runway was built at Sea-Tac.
In 2005, Southwest Airlines and Alaska Airlines proposed flying out of Boeing Field in Seattle, but King County said no.

One idea sure to come up again in the next few years is the airfield at Joint Base Lewis-McChord because it's convenient to Tacoma and Olympia.

But Rep. Adam Smith (D-Washington), who chairs the House Armed Services Committee, told KIRO 7 the military is unlikely to go along.

"I don't think you'd be able to fold commercial air traffic into McChord, there are other options but I don't think the military base is a good option," Smith said.

Senator Kaiser said the Defense Department did ask to be included as an observer on the new commission and said "options abound."

Keiser said she doesn't know what the commission will choose, but says the region might need more than one alternative to Sea-Tac.

"We've avoided the problem for so long that the problem is way too big for a silver bullet. We need probably buckshot at this point," Keiser said.

Meantime, work continues at Sea-Tac Airport through the Port of Seattle's Sustainable Airport Master Plan to evaluate projects to accommodate future growth.

An extra one million people are expected to live in the Central Puget Sound region by 2035.