Second Airport: Arguing about capacity won’t work

I got several objections to my last post on SB5370 and specifically my public comment at the Senate Transportation Committee Hearing: Go to 57:00

But at the risk of sounding demagogic, I have to remind readers that our job is to tell the truth. And the truth is that siting a second airport will have no effect on the Port Of Seattle’s construction plans or on the noise and pollution around Sea-Tac for either the near term or the long term. Because you cannot build your way out of capacity issues. Really. It works that way for all traffic problems; not just with cars and trucks but with planes and trains too.

Regardless, I am told that actually saying so at a public comment is stupid. It only works against getting the bill passed. I am told that lawmakers are not going to vote for a bill unless they feel it is absolutely necessary from a capacity standpoint. And again, I must strenuously disagree based on the facts and on the history.

There have been reports that Sea-Tac Airport has been at or approaching capacity since before Des Moines incorporated in 1959 (In fact, one reason Des Moines incorporated was to have more of a voice in terms of regional planning issues.) Anyway, in every case where the airport seemed to be approaching capacity, the Port Of Seattle simply used available technology to build its way out of the problem, despite complaints from the surrounding communities. And with each expansion, the voices of protest got louder and louder–not just from our airport communities, but from communities all around the country, to the point where lawmakers got the message from airlines and passed ANCA in 1990 which effectively shut down almost all community lawsuits.

But even so, we kept trying to sue to stop the 3rd Runway–which we thought was beyond nuts. And yet, the Port found a way to make that happen. And if they were willing to go to those extreme lengths to add capacity, what makes you think they will not be able to use the latest technology to keep going now that we have an entirely new generation of GPS and computer-control? No, Sea-Tac Airport will find a way to meet their capacity goals. And more. They will make a way out of no way, despite the restrictions of land.

In short, the arguments about ‘capacity’ will not work. The Port Of Seattle will simply bring in experts who will provide an accurate description of their track record at solving capacity problems and of the current technological state of the art and that will be that. So long as they don’t have to worry about those pesky residents (meaning us of course) they can in fact, meet almost any future capacity target the industry throws at them. That is the harsh reality no one wants to admit. They can get away with being even more awful to us than they already are in terms of noise and pollution because the rest of the region has proven it doesn’t give a shit. That future is entirely possible given the current state of environmental regulation.

So the only reasonable arguments for a second airport will be about competition, fairness and environmental justice–all notions that can be factually demonstrated. We’ll be talking more about all of these shortly, but for now let’s briefly discuss competition.

We’ve tried to show that Port Of Seattle often behaves less like a public agency and more like a for-profit business. It is a serious competitor and considers its goals to be the public good. One example of this arrogance was its ongoing battle with the Port Of Tacoma during the 80’s and 90’s. The Port Of Tacoma offered lower rates so many ships began off-loading there. The Port Of Seattle reacted in a number of ways that made life more difficult for shippers that chose to work with Tacoma–in effect punishing shippers who were disloyal. And of course, the inevitable outcome of this battle was that both Ports lost business. Shippers decided to move freight down to Long Beach, CA or up to Vancouver, BC. It took twenty years for leadership at the Port Of Seattle to start to see the big picture and work together with the Port Of Tacoma to create the current Seaport Alliance.

Based on that past behavior, our guess is that the Port Of Seattle will treat a second airport in much the same way–attempting to low-ball on various fees and avoiding as much environmental regulation as possible in order to keep as much business at Sea-Tac as it can–even business that should be going to the second airport.

We therefore believe that a second airport will need an incubation period in order to protect it from predatory anti-competitive behavior by the Port Of Seattle. Without such protections, the new airport won’t have a chance to develop its own customer-base.

Again, this is the kind of thing that will require long-term thinking and long-term management. And we have seen so far from everyone talking about a second airport is simply a desperate plea for ‘relief!’. I hear you. I feel your pain. But a second airport is not about relief for you and me.

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