OK, so we had our Open Houses, kids. So what’s the next crisis to react to? Sorry to sound snarky. I do believe all these current issues matter. And I applaud everyone in the community and government who are reacting to them. Well done. Really. (At some point I have to develop the nerve to not have to say “well done” over and over before getting to the point.)
However my generally dour tone has to do with the ‘Long Game’ I frequently yammer about. We’re not playing it and the Port Of Seattle most definitely is. Which is why we keep bouncing from crisis to crisis every dozen years or so.
As I write this Hurricane Florence is bearing down on the Carolinas. What I find heartening about that part of the United States is that as a matter of practicalities even the most conservative person there can no longer deny the whole climate change thing. Many people have now had their homes ruined two or three times, so the reality of the situation is finally sinking in (no pun intended). Their local governments are becoming long-term planners because they recognise that game-changing hurricanes will be a regular part of their world from now on.
We in the Sea-Tac Airport communities have yet to learn this lesson. This is the fourth major expansion at Sea-Tac. And every time, a generation worked as diligently as they could to try and manage the acute situation. But when the expansion had finally happened, win or lose, all the residents either left or wanted nothing more than to get back to ‘normal’. And that’s the problem.
You see, like the people along our east coast, it’s taking us a while to understand that we must always be ready for the next hurricane. We must always be preparing for the next challenge from the Port Of Seattle–even as we get ready to face the current challenges.
The reason the Port has become so intractable, so damned powerful, is not just because they have outrageous statutory power, but because they are constantly planning for that next expansion and we are not.
Remember: the Port has all these compliance procedures baked into their institutional thought process by State and Federal agencies. They have a whole range of employees with the word ‘environment’ in their job titles. Scientists, lawyers, engineers, analysts. Do you see the irony? The policies put in place to protect us by our State and Federal governments also give the Port Of Seattle the very blueprint and systems they need to overcome any and all of our objections. (A very real way of thinking of SEPA and NEPA as not being about processes designed to protect you, but rather as processes that allow them a clear pathway towards no-hassle construction.)
We also know what’s coming. Because the Port graciously shares their plans with the public. It’s called marketing and public accounting. They have a very appealing story of growth and increasing prosperity that they want everyone in the region to know about. And they have the requirements of a public corporation which disciplines them towards thinking about where they want to go.
But what we do is wait until the night before the test to start cramming. For example, we’ve known since 2012 that the Port was planning this current expansion. And when did any of the city governments respond? Only within the past two years. And only (and this is the really important part) in response to badgering by us pesky residents (way to go Quiet Skies). Be honest: can you see your city leaders having taken any action against the Port on their own? Of course not. They are 100% reactive. (And by the way, the ‘study’ metaphor goes further: because we spend literally years re-learning strategies and tactics that residents from prior expansions learned and then immediately forgot.)
Another irony is that cities like Des Moines are falling all over themselves now to develop Emergency Management programs–to protect residents from an earthquake or some other life-changing disaster like Hurricane Florence. And that’s great. But the predictability of the next earthquake is far less than that of hurricanes on the east coast. And that predictability is far, far less than that of the next airport expansion. In fact, we know exactly when the next airport expansion will occur–even as we fight the current expansion. So why are our cities spending so much on the next earthquake (which is not predictable) but nothing on the next airport expansion, which is 100% predictable? (Spoiler Alert: Because your city leaders don’t see the airport as one of their top five priorities. Really. Not even in the Top 5.)
There is going to be the next expansion. Let that sink in. There will be another expansion. And another after that. It will never stop. Just like hurricanes. They are a fact of life in our community just as surely as hurricanes are to American people of Puerto Rico and the southeast coast.
So the single biggest thing protesters can do to help our communities is to get city leaders to start feeling a sense of real urgency; to get them to start planning for the next expansion while dealing with the current expansion.
Obstructions To Long Term Thinking
The problems with long term thinking are two-fold. First, there is the 800lb. Gorilla, namely ‘The SAMP’, which we haven’t been preparing for. So it’s natural for people to be falling all over themselves to address it. And if one talks about ‘long term planning’ it’s a bit like trying to sell auto insurance to a guy who is about to drive off a cliff. He’s got other fish to fry at the moment.
The other problem is that there really are NO low hanging fruit. (Or is it ‘fruits’? I’m never sure with that one.) Anyhoo, everyone talks about how there must be ‘lots’ of things that are doable, right? WRONG! Every (and I mean every) suggestion you might come up with will be rejected by the Port for one reason or another. Some of them because the Port spreads misinformation which we believe and so lose heart. (This kills me. Why should we believe anything they say at this point?) Yer average Port Commissioner knows way less about the airport than you do. Just ask them. They’ll freely admit it. They leave all that ‘operations’ jazz to the corporation. The real problem is that you can’t get Port Commissioners to believe you over the people they are supposed to oversee.
Other tasks we don’t take on because they are considered ‘too hard’ or would take ‘too long’. This is like not saving for retirement because it’s so far away. We refuse to take on tasks that won’t reduce noise or pollution in the short term because there are no tasks that reduce noise or pollution in the short term.
This is where beating on your City Council is an imperative. Your City Council has no desire to take on long-term airport planning. How am I sure? I’ve looked at their budgets. None have anything about airport planning. None. And as Dr. King tells us, “Budgets are moral documents.” Translation: if it isn’t in the budget? Your city can say whatever they want, they don’t really give a shit. At best your city is setting aside “one time money”. Which only goes to show that they consider the airport a one-off problem.
And then there is the sad truth that many of your cities are in bed with the Port and simply will not create any friction (See: Dave Kaplan). As I write this Burien’s Mayor has shared his desire to seek development money from the Port.
Why Cities Are The Key
But the truth is that until your city allocates a sustainable budget for fighting the airport, we will never beat the airport.
Why? Well think about it: The Port has a guy at every meeting that concerns their interests. There are literally meetings every day of the week where they have a Port representative. WashDot, Commerce, Ecology, PSRC, King County. As Yul Brynner used to say: “Etc. etc. etc.” Does any city currently have someone at all those events standing up for our interests? Of course not.
Our citizen advocacy groups try their best to keep up with the Port’s efforts, but even if we could be everywhere we should be and know everything we should know we would still lack the one superpower that the Port has that is even more important than all their money: continuity. Their long-term process ensures that they will be executing their plan over time regardless of any individual. Us? If any key person moves to Barbados, falls ill, gets fired, is voted out of office or whatever, everything we try to accomplish is immediately at risk.
Beatings, You Say?
I emphasize beating on your city because the notion of working with your city is not getting ‘er done. Objectively, there has been almost nothing but failure since the airport cities have had their various citizen committees. I know how harsh that sounds but it’s just the truth. I coulda told you it would go like this, but people already think I’m “Mr. Negative” so I try to avoid saying ‘I told you so.’
One reason is the simple fact that committees are often not about hard soul-searching. How many official committees have you been on in your lifetime where someone said, “This committee is nowheresville. I’m outta here!” Doesn’t happen. Especially on a committee where the goals are totally noble, people like each other, are smart and are generally working their tails off. People don’t give up under those circumstances. Kids are typically the only ones with enough honesty to say something like that.
Another problem is that all these failures don’t look like failures. I often use the metaphor of the Port as a casino and this is one of those times. Every time there is some bad news it is also invariably coupled with some new ‘opportunity’ that makes people keep playing the same game. It’s like slot machines: almost irresistible because every pull seems like its bringing you one step closer to winning–even though yer brain (cough) ‘knows’ that’s not at all the case.
There’s also the sheer fascination factor. Face it: a lot of people get a real charge out of making a civic contribution. And that makes it really hard to be objective about the results.
And last but not least? There’s the distinct possibility that your city doesn’t really want you to succeed. Maybe all they want is to appear to be making progress. Is that too harsh? OK, fine. Then perhaps it’s more like that idea of the guy with the hammer who sees every problem as a nail. Perhaps each city can only see the committees as the way to solve problems because that’s the only way cities solve problems? They also may see the Port as providing tremendous benefits. (Some council members I’ve spoken with in various cities believe this even more strongly than the leadership of the Port.)
The Current Scoreboard
By my tally, we’re not doing great at the moment. We’ve been at this now almost two years and we have put no wins on the board. All our efforts have been reactive. We have no goals other than the ones the Port has put in front of us by way of the SAMP. We have no agenda of our own and no long term plan in place to achieve it. And worst of all, we have no buy-in from our cities to create a system and processes which will provide continuity from one government to the next.
Your cities currently have no incentives to provide the resources necessary to win (whatever ‘win’ means.) Their residents know very, very little about the airport situation and none of the cities has spent any effort to improve that state of affairs.
What I’m describing is a lack of leadership. But some city has to step up in order to get the ball rolling. And in my opinion, Des Moines is the one city that has the ability to turn round this state of affairs. Des Moines currently has the resources to do so and also, Des Moines has the greatest amount of airport pain with only trivial airport benefits. The difficulty, of course, is that their city government is populated by people who believe the falsehood that the Port provides dramatic and ongoing benefits. They believe they can have their cake and breathe it too. Unfortunately, here on planet reality, it doesn’t work that way.
Again, regardless of which city you live in, part of your job has to be changing your council members’ minds on this point or voting them out. You have to make them understand that the airport is an existential threat, otherwise there is no chance in fixing the mess we live with at Sea-Tac.
The best thing you can do for this fight is to contact your city council member(s) and tell them you care about not just the SAMP but having a long term strategy to fight the airport. You have to convince them that this is not a one-off problem that they can solve by hiring some consultants and maybe a lawyer or three.
If your city has a citizen airport committee, make it clear to them that they should also be focused on a long term plan.
One last thing: It is essential that the various airport committees find ways to work together. What I find a bit disquieting is how the various committees currently reflect their city governments to one degree or another. Each city government has many, many disagreements with their neighbouring cities, but we as residents should be able to share one common issue: the airport. What I’m trying to say is that you have an obligation to try to work together as citizens and not as part of your city government. The only way we can wrest control of the airport is by working together. The city governments will never do so until we work together. It starts with us setting the proper example.