Proposed Airport Sites in Thurston, Pierce Counties May Not Be Viable Given Obstacles

Martin Bilbao / The Olympian

Three proposed international airport sites in Pierce and Thurston counties may not be viable given obstacles that have yet to be fully analyzed, the acting chair of Commercial Aviation Coordinating Commission said Monday.

Warren Hendrickson of the CACC said each of the three sites have “showstoppers” that could require removing them from consideration.

“My sense is, from what we have learned, the body of knowledge going forward, that I don’t know that it’s possible to mitigate all the considerations and the constraints and the obstacles of those three sites,” Hendrickson said.

Hendrickson, who’s also Airport Senior Manager for the Olympia Regional Airport, addressed the status of the controversial selection process and answered questions from lawmakers during a Washington state House of Representatives Transportation Committee meeting on Monday.

The committee invited officials from CACC, Pierce and Thurston counties and the Nisqually Tribe to comment on the process in light of widespread opposition.

Scores of public officials and concerned citizens have called the proposed airports existential threats to local communities and the natural environment, The Olympian previously reported.

Speaking for himself, Hendrickson said the Thurston County Central site, a circular area that spans six-miles in diameter northeast of Tenino, probably ranked the lowest of the three options.

Hendrickson said the site has the lowest capacity and directly overlaps land controlled by Joint Base Lewis-McChord. The latter factor would violate state law, he said.

The CACC, which was created by the 2019 state legislature, has two restrictions on its final recommendation that’s due in June, according to Hendrickson’s presentation.

The commission cannot include a location in a county with a population of 2 million or more, which effectively rules out King County. And it cannot select a site that’s on or in the vicinity of an incompatible military installation.

All three sites lack sufficient transportation services and infrastructure to sustain a large airport, Hendrickson said. Airspace in each area is congested as well, he said.

Each proposal also is likely to affect watershed water quality, native species and the Nisqually Tribe’s treaty rights, Hendrickson said.

“The Thurston County site sits on top of an aquifer,” Hendrickson said. “The Pierce County sites and the Thurston County site all sit on top of the Nisqually watershed. You have a (Bonneville Power Administration) power line.

“There are wetlands, there are floodplains and there’s no easy immediate transportation access from the I-5 corridor.”

The cost and the process

CACC roughly expects a 3,100-acre airport with two runways to cost $13.8 billion in 2023 pricing, according to preliminary order of magnitude cost estimates. That cost could escalate to $24.6 billion if the project reaches a construction midpoint in 2043, according to the estimate.

Hendrickson said it will take 15-20 years to develop a new airport, but SeaTac will reach capacity by 2032.

Larry Krauter, a voting member of CACC and Chief Executive Officer for Spokane International Airport, said he believes the potential economic impacts of not building a new airport at all could be much worse for the state than estimates can show.

“It’s a West Side centric market that is being served, (but) the connectivity over that hub is really critical,” Krauter said. “And I think what is going to begin to happen over time is we are going to see winners and losers selected, as capacity continues to diminish.”

While fielding questions from lawmakers, Krauter cautioned that the conversation around the proposed sites lacked specificity that could be gained through a thorough technical analysis.

“I think, right now, the issue is that there’s a lot of people that are concerned, but there just aren’t a lot of facts that can be shared with them, in terms of what are the impacts associated with citing a new airport in a greenfield area, if you want,” Krauter said.

Hendrickson acknowledged that some people felt like they weren’t informed about the selection process until a few months ago when the number of options were narrowed. He said the pandemic and the commission’s limited budget affected outreach.

“What we have to do is create an environment where people know that information is available … and we’re seeing that now,” Hendrickson said. “But the fact that we probably didn’t push as hard as we could have has been an issue.”

Rep. Jake Fey, a Tacoma Democrat who chairs the Transportation Committee, summed up his feelings on the matter, saying he believes the legislature didn’t adequately understand the significance of this process when it started it.

“It looks to me like the legislature, in its totality here, sort of naively went into this and didn’t really think through what it would take to do this right,” Fey said.

Local leaders voice opposition

Nisqually Tribe Chairman Willie Frank listed a series of historical injustices his people have fought against since the arrival of white colonizers. He also described decades-long and multimillion dollar efforts to restore and protect the Nisqually River.

“The Nisqually watershed is one of the only rivers that is in better shape now than it was 100 years ago, and that’s not by accident,” Frank said. “That takes the teamwork of everybody in this great state and then this great watershed to protect everything that lives along it.”

Frank called on lawmakers to extend the commission’s work through 2023 and broaden its considerations for a new airport. He said the Nisqually Tribe is willing to collaborate on a policy and technical level to help find a place where an airport makes sense.

“It does not make sense in the Nisqually watershed, near the Nisqually. River,” Frank said. “We are asking you to stand with us, be bold, be brave, and to continue to work to protect the Nisqually River.”

Thurston County Manager Ramiro Chavez outlined several “fundamental issues” with the selection process and called on lawmakers to gather more information before deciding on a site for a new airport.

“As you heard, there has been no comprehensive environmental impact analysis to truly determine if any mitigation measures will be adequate, appropriate, or even permissible,” Chavez said.

Chavez also called the potential loss of agriculture lands “alarming” and a threat to food security.

Building an airport in central Thurston County also could eliminate Mazama pocket gopher habitat, which would violate Endangered Species Act requirements, he said.

But beyond environmental justice, Chavez asked lawmakers to consider the human impact of the proposal, an aspect he felt has been absent from the selection process.

“The displacement and relocations of residential households are draconian at best with this proposal,” Chavez said. “And as a result, we’ll be seeing the reduction of affordable housing in Thurston County.”

Chavez also criticized CACC’s public outreach, saying they have not hosted community events.

Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier shared similar concerns and called the process “frustrating” for residents.

“The consequences, the impacts, the negative results for the people of Pierce County for our environment, for our community are just dramatically greater than any potential benefits that we would see,” Dammeier said.

As a solution, Dammeier suggested the state create smaller airports across the region to spread economic benefit and reduce environmental impacts.

Next steps

CACC will meet again on March 2 to review the findings of an ongoing technical analysis. It will issue its recommendation by a June 15 deadline, but the legislature has ultimate authority on whether to accept or reject it.

“The CACC’s assigned task per the original legislation has been to answer where, not how,” Hendrickson said. “How is yet to be determined.”

If the state proceeds, Hendrickson said the project will require massive collaboration among all affected jurisdictions, the identification of an airport sponsor and the determination of funding resources.

Furthermore, he said the project necessitates the creation of an airport master plan and the implementation of required environmental studies.

“Those of us on the commission are left with a constant thought, how do we collaboratively solve this?” Hendrickson said. “Regrettably, I don’t have an answer for you yet today. But we have identified some obstacles.”