I attended my first StART meeting in a while last night. The first thing I noticed was how ‘official’ it has become. By that I mean, it was sparsely attended, quiet and the attendees were engaged in some very fine-grained the work, mostly on the whole Glide Slope thing. The second half of the meeting even featured a classic team-building exercise: members were shuffled into disparate groups of three and asked to brainstorm their 2019 wish-lists.

Regarding that Glide Slope thing. At the tail end of the presentation, the presenter offhandedly mentioned that the cost of the recommended alternative might range anywhere from $25 to $30 million dollars. And what struck me was how matter of fact that statement was made. No one whistled. Or gasped. It wasn’t even a bullet point in the presentation. *Just a footnote before moving on.

Now corporations may not be ‘artificial persons’, but all groups do have personalities. And this group definitely has developed a personality. And this group’s personality is now Joe Scorcio’s personality. It is going for small, easily definable ‘wins’. And apparently the Port seems cool with paying for those small wins.

I understand that this point of view is reasonable. But my point of view is that we should be looking at all the variables before deciding what jobs to tackle. The Glide Slope issue, which has dominated so much of the group’s work was chosen because it was considered ‘low hanging fruit’. OK. Now here’s my question: Did the group know when it began that there was $25 million dollars of fruit on the table?

Because if, on day one, the group had been told by the organizers that there would be $25 million available to address that fruit basket of airport-related issues? Trust me, I would have committed the felonies necessary to be on that committee and to get my favoured agenda enacted.

Now at the risk of sounding arrogant, I think I can come up with at least a few other suggestions for spending $25 million to help the residents of SeaTac, Des Moines, Normandy Park, Federal Way and Burien. And so could you, I expect.

What You Can Do With $25M Right Now

For example. With that kind of dosh I’m pretty sure I can get bids from at least three reputable companies to provide quantitative analysis of the UFPs out to a six mile radius from the TRACON. I’ve heard from Dr. Edmund Seto at DEOHS that the UW Ultra-Fine Particulate Study should provide enough modeling information to allow for the creation of a such a system using 15 to 20 stationary monitors with off-the-shelf equipment. Meaning right now; not years away with fighting in court over the SAMP. Right now. On a regular basis. If the Port really has that kind of financial commitment to the StART (they say they do) and really has that kind of commitment to learning the true environmental impacts at Sea-Tac (they say they do), we could start getting ongoing data right now via the StART. And that’s what victory smells like in the morning to me.

But Wait! Do Not Pick Up That Phone!

Because all that kit probably only costs one million dollars a year including all the reporting you could ever want. And if you act now, the first six cities who call in will also get (sorry, I’ll stop) a qualitative analysis of the dozen or so most important molecules (C02, N02, H202, various heavy metals, etc.) for another hundred thousand or so. Again, this is bog-standard stuff that any number of labs can provide. Now. On a regular basis.

Again, this is something we can do now. (I keep writing words like ‘now’ and ‘today’ because there’s this ongoing story that all testing lives in a far off land called ‘eighteen months to several years’. We’ve gotten so trained to expect no regular reports on air quality that we simply don’t believe that we could implement a perfectly acceptable system without the help of Saruman The Great or some State Agency with ridiculous timelines.)

Why Through The Magic Of Compound Interest, Timmy!

And the beauty part? If the Port really has that kind of budget? Through their magical accounting procedures, they can turn $25 million dollars into basically a ‘forever fund’. I’ve got draft writing on this in conjunction with the Tax Levies coming up but for now:  because of their (cough) ‘unique’ governmental status, they can basically borrow at next to zero interest, then re-invest, then draw a few million off the top every year, and never touch the principal. (Think of this like a colleges endowment.) The Port could sell bonds to fund this (or use the Tax Levy one year, I wouldn’t squawk at that) and we’d have air monitor funding for the next 50 years.

OK, Back To The Fruit

Sorry, I get all steamy thinking about bond spreads on Special District Corporations.

Anyhoo, back to the low-hanging fruit. So the StART, er… ‘started’ by trying to grab some of that. However the group did not spend a lot of time in the beginning asking some basic long-term relationship (LTR) questions such as “what tools have we got to work with” and “what does everyone really want” and “what do we all care about most”. Instead, the plan seems to have been, “Hey, we’ve been dicking around at the Highline Forum for ten years, so let’s do something easy and practical. Let’s put some points on the board as a proof of concept that we can all work together before we try to tackle any really big issues. I call this the “couples therapy” school of team building: it assumes that everyone going in hates each others guts so you’re just trying to keep them from walking out. And that right there should have been a red flag. I mean the fact that everyone was on tenterhooks going in should have (in my view) prompted some real Q&A at the start before getting down to work. Perhaps none of the StART members have been to couples therapy and could not see the tell-tale signs. Lucky them. 😀

But now it’s 2019. And you can see the cracks developing and they are the same cultural problems that have dogged the cities for decades: they each want different things. And instead of respecting that fact, they get annoyed with one another. So in fact, the ‘start small’ strategy was bad because it is the small issues that are the most divisive. Ironically, it is only on the large issues that everyone agrees.

Channeling My Inner Resident

I will now channel the comments of residents I speak with every day in the various cities. You may find them unappealing, but they are your neighbors and this is really how they feel down-deep, even though they’re too polite to say it out loud:

  • SeaTac: We’re at ground zero. We can’t understand why our City Council fights us on home buyouts. We also want noise walls and hush houses built alongside the runways.
  • Des Moines: We do not give a SHIT about Glide Slopes. (Or rather we shouldn’t. The psycho-acoustics just doesn’t pencil out.) We care about Port Packages!
  • Federal Way: We definitely want that Glide Slope changed but we do not want a bunch of money spent on windows and insulation that helps only a few thousand homes. It’s sad, but there it is.
  • Basically Everyone: Regarding that poor guy on Vashon Island? Quit Whining! You’re not interested in ‘fairness’. You’re interested in returning to your Edenic quiet. There are no directions that planes can fly that don’t bug someone now! The rest of us are sorry for your pain, but frankly, we’re not too upset that at least a few flights are being directed anywhere but over us.

Get it? Every city has distinct view as to how to prioritize issues.

But it’s the big ticket issues that we should all be working on because they’re the only items that we all can agree on! And these fall into two categories: Monitoring and Reduction. Reduction is too huge a topic to get into here so I’ll try to get back to the ‘low hanging fruit’ thing:

I just gave you a working proposal for air quality monitoring that could be implemented TODAY. No waiting for State studies or SAMP studies or Environmental Consultant ricketa-racketa. We could do it TODAY if every City member of the StART Committee asked for it. That’s something that would benefit every single person in this region until the day Sea-Tac stops operating.

The Chain Of Command

On of my biggest beefs with the various activist groups is that they are well-aware of these differences. And their approach to handling this challenge has been to simply avoid it and focus on solutions that do not require the cities working together. That means working on Federal or State laws and other real long-term programs. It’s fair to say that I have been extremely skeptical of this approach because you simply cannot avoid dealing with your cities. They are simply too much a part of any solution; even if it comes down from on high. And besides, all those higher-up solutions take YEARS to achieve.

Whither StART?

Despite my skepticism of the structure of the StART it has one key advantage over other programs to fix airport-related problems: it actually exists. It’s gotten way off course (sorry, I really do try to avoid aviation metaphors) but it is fixable.

My take on the situation is that just a few members have kind of become bullies for the ‘baby steps’ agenda even though it is clear that most of the cities do want to take more aggressive steps. And I think that SeaTac has gotten quite enough mileage out of the fact that it spent a lot of money funding the State Impact Study. Well done. We thank you. Now, that’s enough.

Because the thing about that? It was done unilaterally. It was great, don’t get me wrong, but it was one city taking charge. It’s now time for all the cities to jump in and contribute; not just monetarily, but with ideas and some drive. So I’m going to swing back to my tortured marriage counselor metaphor to close.

We Need A Professional, Ma’am!

I keep saying that the airport communities desperately need an airport professional in order to break the strangle hold of the Port Of Seattle. I generally do not refer to this person as a ‘lobbyist’ because that person needs to do a lot more than just work the legislature and the StART is a perfect example. What the StART needs to work is that ‘airport professional’ to be talking almost daily with each city, keeping them informed, engaged  and enthusiastic about the process–call him/her a coach. It’s obvious to anyone watching that there just isn’t enough communication between the participants. All the participants should genuinely like one another. After all, they’re all working towards some very good goals, right? But the city members definitely are not working as a team. They should be able to show up with a unified agenda ready to go that is about as seamless as a well-functioning city council. You need a really knowledgeable facilitator to help make that happen. Otherwise, the general meetings are fragmented and it can take years to get even small things accomplished.

So: it’s time to go big. I’ve presented one big idea that could be implemented now. One last thing regarding the whole ‘marriage counseling’ thing. There’s a time in every therapy where you gotta fish or cut bait. The group needs to aggressively pursue at least one big idea now for the simple reason that it’s time to find out who is for real and who is full of shit. One benefit of my proposal is that it tests the Port’s sincerity using their own metrics. They have said many times that they want to know the environmental impacts. And they appear to want to spend money. Similar pledges of faith need to be forthcoming from each city and the airlines. The StART hasn’t tested its members yet to see what their real commitment is. It needs to do so now.

*It was pointed out to me that the Port might be so generous with regard to the Glide Slope because they could get that money funded through an FAA AIP grant. Point taken. But again, that’s why we have to find out the details and level of their commitment to this relationship.

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