Let me tell you some airport stories.
As a young reporter in San Diego, I wrote about the city and county’s search for an airport to replace what was then Lindbergh Field with a single runway, 3 miles from downtown and gated from the city.
Years later, I was involved with Rocky Mountain News in reporting on the development and construction of Denver International Airport, one of the largest US infrastructure projects of the 1990s.
Reading it took me back to that time the story of my colleague Dominic Gates about efforts to site a new airport here, an endeavor fueled by forecasts of rising demand and beset by…well, almost everyone who would be affected by the loss of a vast chunk of 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 location was Naval Air Station Miramar on the northern outskirts of town and then home to the Navy’s TOPGUN school – the Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor Program made famous by the Tom Cruise films.
Miramar was large, expandable, bordered Interstate 15, and not overly occupied by subdivisions. The problem was that to no avail, the Navy rebuffed efforts to transfer the base to civilian use and eventually handed it over to the Marines.
Other potential locations were either impractical or fantastic, such as taking over the touristy Mission Bay or building a new airport and landfill just off the existing shoreline, the latter being something neither the Navy nor the retired admirals who live in swanky Coronado would would allow.
The eyes turned back to Miramar. but In 2006, voters resolutely refused a voting proposal to urge the federal government to build a new international airport there. The majority of the opposition was based on concerns about reducing the economic importance of the military in San Diego and on national security concerns.
The result: San Diego International Airport remains where it has been since 1928. The Airport Authority added gates, spruced up terminals and renamed the location. It is the second largest single-runway airport in the world, with no realistic alternative to replace it.
Denver turned out differently.
The city replaced Stapleton Airport, located only about 5 miles from downtown, with a massive, six-runway, all-weather behemoth that opened in 1995. It was the first major airport to open in the United States since Dallas-Fort Worth International in 1973 — and Denver’s efforts not only met with skepticism but required a hard push.
Stapleton had to be expanded or replaced. It was fenced off from neighborhoods. Mayor Federico Peña initially pushed to expand the nearby Rocky Mountain Arsenal, an Army facility that was withdrawing from its role in manufacturing chemical weapons. (The Arsenal traced its roots back to World War II, required a Superfund cleanup, and is now primarily a wildlife sanctuary.)
When this proved impractical, Peña reached an agreement with an adjacent, mostly rural, county on the plains further east. Denver was allowed to annex the land for the new airport, and after problems with an automated baggage system, it was eventually completed.
It was an amazing feat, but it cost $8.5 billion and wasn’t easy.
Stapleton’s Website has been redeveloped in homes, warehouses and retail centers.
Although Denver International Airport is 19 miles to the east, it borders Interstate 70, and those pesky cab rides are now alleviated by a fast, convenient electric train that runs all the way to Denver Union Station.
Which brings us to our situation. Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (operated by the Port of Seattle; Tacoma is unrelated) and Paine Field in Snohomish County will not have the capacity to meet future needs.
By 2050, traffic in the region is expected to grow to 94 million passengers per year. Even the expansion of the two current airports will leave the region unable to accommodate 27 million passengers annually. And that doesn’t include future air freight needs.
As Gates reported, “A state commission narrowed the search last month to a shortlist of three sites in rural Pierce and Thurston counties and has until June 15 to agree on a single site that it will recommend to the Legislature.
“In a confusing fold, the state Department of Transportation is also evaluating a fourth site. Just west of Enumclaw in southeastern King County, this site, midway between Seattle and Mount Rainier, would eat up considerable green space.”
But resistance is universal, from landowners, tribes and environmentalists. Another problem: none of the locations that could be considered for another major airport has an adequate infrastructure that connects it to the metropolitan areas.
One of Washington’s great achievements is the land use policy that preserves open spaces. An airport and the resulting urban sprawl would cause significant damage in and around it.
Instead of another airport, Washington should focus on improving and expanding existing Amtrak service, as well as building a high-speed rail line.
Airplanes contribute between 2.5% and 3.5% of the greenhouse gases behind human-caused climate change. Passenger trains are responsible for far less, especially when electrified.
China has built around 23,500 miles of bullet trains since 2008. An authoritarian nation can easily achieve this.
But Japan, a liberal democracy, is famous for its shinkansen bullet trains. They travel at 200 miles per hour, connect the country’s major cities and have not suffered a single passenger fatality in 50 years of operation.
Western Europe is criss-crossed by high-speed trains. They have replaced airplanes on many short routes and European countries want to so that this happens more often.
The United States is far behind — the only advanced, urbanized nation on earth without bullet trains (California botched its efforts, and Texas is trying to build a line between Dallas and Houston). Here are ways to cut costs is paramount but doable.
It’s not an either/or, it’s a yes plus. Airplanes have their place. But also passenger trains. They would be a far better investment than another airport.