Sea-Tac's Woes Are Reminiscent of 1990s Battle

This month's Editor's Note from Rob Smith

This article appears in print in the December 2019 issue. Click here for a free subscription.

Nostalgia for the 1990s is everywhere.

For me, it’s in this month’s magazine, where Managing Editor Bill Conroy details plans to alleviate congestion at Sea-Tac International Airport. One solution is to build another regional airport.

Back in the 1990s I was editor of a community newspaper based in Burien called the Highline Times/Des Moines News, which covered several cities near the airport, including Burien, Des Moines and Normandy Park, as well as the newly incorporated city of SeaTac.

Community leaders were vociferous in their opposition to the proposed third runway at Sea-Tac, fearing that the noise, pollution and traffic would wreck their cities. It was an ugly debate on both sides. Even though the runway wasn’t built until 2008, it seemed like a done deal from the moment a group called the Puget Sound Air Transportation Committee first recommended it in 1992.

The committee also called for commercial use of Paine Field and possibly McChord Air Force Base south of Tacoma, and a supplemental airport in either Pierce or Thurston counties.

Things got so heated that when we ran a fake editorial on April’s Fool’s Day advocating for the runway, our readership went nuts (even though we pointed out it was just one big joke at the end of the piece). I’ll never forget one angry reader’s response: “It’s not funny. You’re playing with people’s lives here.”

The angst was more than just the specter of a third runway. Residents didn’t feel as if their voices even mattered. The Port of Seattle — which operates the airport — treated runway opponents with disdain. One port official compared the opposition to living next to Husky Stadium in Seattle: “You buy a house there, and you can’t complain about noise on Saturdays in the fall.”

Comparing a football game to an airport expansion is nonsensical.

In retrospect, there was some NIMBYism involved. But proponents didn’t even try to understand the concerns of southwest King County residents. Politically, their major misstep was their decision to ignore history: SeaTac and Federal Way voted to incorporate as cities in 1989. Burien followed three years later. Prior to incorporation, those areas were part of unincorporated King County, which treated them as a dumping ground for tacky multifamily development.

We even found a document from the Federal Aviation Administration outlining plans for a fourth runway, which was explained away as “a typo.” As we editorialized at the time, “that’s some typo.” That sloppiness created even more suspicion and ill will.

We know today that there will be no fourth runway at Sea-Tac, which is among the smallest international airports in the nation. There’s nowhere to put it. That means another regional airport, and siting it and determining its function is no small task. The stakeholders involved in this debate go way beyond individuals worried about jet noise: They are municipalities and major corporate entities with significant business interests.

Nobody wants an airport in their backyard. Yet, everyone wants convenience and efficiency.

Managing those contradictions is a Herculean task.

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