Let me tell you some airport stories.
As a young journalist in San Diego, I wrote about the city and county’s search for an airport to replace the single-runway airport then called Lindbergh Field, 3 miles from downtown and landlocked by the town.
Years later, at the Rocky Mountain News, I helped cover the development and construction of Denver International Airport, one of America’s biggest infrastructure projects of the 1990s.
I was taken back to that time reading my colleague Dominic Gates’ story of the site selection effort for a new airport here, an effort driven by projections of growing demand and pushed against by… well , almost everyone who would be affected by the loss of a large swath of rural land.
My experience tells me that building a new airport will not be easy. It might not even be wise.
In San Diego, the most promising site was Naval Air Station Miramar, on the northern outskirts of the city, which then housed the Navy’s TOPGUN school – the Strike Fighter Tactics instructor program popularized by Tom Cruise films. .
Miramar was large, amenable to expansion, adjacent to Interstate 15, and sparsely overgrown with subdivisions. The problem was that the Navy had none of that, pushing back on the effort to transfer the base to civilian use and eventually handing it over to the Marines.
Other potential locations were either impractical or fantastic, such as taking over the tourist bay of Mission or building a new airport with a dump just off the existing shoreline, the latter being something neither the Navy nor retired admirals living in posh Coronado would allow.
The eyes turned to Miramar. But in 2006, voters firmly rejected a ballot proposal aimed at pressuring the federal government to build a new international airport there. Much of the opposition was based on concern to diminish the economic importance of the military in San Diego and national security concerns.
The result: San Diego International Airport remained where it had been since 1928. The airport authority added gates, beautified terminals and renamed the area. It is the second busiest single-runway airport in the world, with no realistic alternative to replace it.
Denver turned out to be different.
The city replaced Stapleton Airport, just about 5 miles from the city center, with a massive six-runway “all-weather” (or so it was the promise) behemoth, which opened in 1995. was the first major airport to open in the United States. since the Dallas-Fort Worth International in 1973 – and Denver’s effort was not only met with skepticism, but needed a boost.
Stapleton had to be expanded or replaced. It was surrounded by neighborhoods. Mayor Federico Peña first pushed to expand on the nearby Rockies Arsenal, an army facility that was weakening from its role in manufacturing chemical weapons. (The armory has its roots in World War II, required a Superfund cleanup, and is now primarily a wildlife sanctuary.)
When this proved unfeasible, Peña struck a deal with a neighboring, largely rural county in the plains further east. Denver was allowed to annex land for the new airport, and after problems with an automated baggage system, it was finally completed.
It was an incredible achievement, but it cost $8.5 billion and it wasn’t easy.
The Stapleton site was redeveloped into homes, warehouses and shopping malls.
Although Denver International Airport is 20 miles further east, it’s adjacent to Interstate 70 and pesky taxi fares are now reduced with a fast and convenient electric train that runs to the Denver Union Station.
Which brings us to our situation. Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (operated by the Port of Seattle; Tacoma has nothing to do with it) and Paine Field in Snohomish County will not have the capacity to meet future needs.
By 2050, traffic in the region is expected to reach 94 million annual passengers. Even the expansion of the two current airports will prevent the region from handling 27 million annual passengers. And that doesn’t include future air freight needs.
As Gates reported, “A state commission last month narrowed the search to a shortlist of three locations in rural Pierce and Thurston counties, and by June 15 must settle on a single site that it will recommend to the Legislative Assembly.
“In a confusing wrinkle, the state Department of Transportation is also still evaluating a fourth site. Just west of Enumclaw in southeastern King County, this location would occupy significant green space midway between Seattle and Mount Rainier.
Yet opposition is universal, from landowners, tribes and environmentalists. Another problem is that none of the sites considered for another major airport has adequate infrastructure linking it to population centers.
One of Washington’s great achievements is the land use policy that preserves open spaces. An airport, and the resulting sprawl, would cause severe degradation in and around it.
Rather than another airport, Washington should focus on improving and expanding existing Amtrak service, as well as building a high-speed train.
Airliners contribute between 2.5% and 3.5% of the greenhouse gases that cause human-induced climate change. Passenger trains are responsible for much less, especially if they are electrified.
China has built around 23,500 miles of high-speed railways since 2008. An authoritarian nation can easily achieve this.
But Japan, a liberal democracy, is famous for its shinkansen bullet trains. They operate at 200mph, connect major cities across the country and have suffered zero passenger fatalities in 50 years of operation.
Western Europe is criss-crossed by high-speed trains. They replaced airliners on many short hops and European countries want that to happen more often.
The United States is far behind – the only advanced, urbanized nation on Earth without high-speed trains (California failed in its efforts and Texas is trying to build a line between Dallas and Houston). Finding ways to reduce costs here is paramount but doable.
This is not an either-or proposition, but a yes-more. Airliners have their place. But passenger trains too. They would make a much better investment than another airport.
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