The problem with cities

As one attempts to survey the landscape concerning the various negative impacts that the Sea-Tac Airport has foisted upon the surrounding communities, one quickly becomes aware of a black hole which I call ‘The Dark Time’–probably because I watched too many comic book movies with my kids.

The Dark Time is the roughly decade-long period beginning with the end of the 3rd Runway Lawsuit in 2004 until 2016 when various activists again began complaining in a semi-organized way. And during The Dark Time, the airlines not only recovered from various financial disasters (including 9/11 and de-regulation) but actually figured out how to make serious money. By 2012, not only was Sea-Tac Airport living up to all the projections made in the 1980’s but with the expected arrival of the Delta Hub, it was clear to planners that even more capacity would be needed.

Hey! Where’d Everybody Go?

One question that should come up, but usually does not, is this: During The Dark Time where were all the protesters (including the cities who made up the ACC)? The simple answer is that the protesters moved away and the cities ran away from the airport.

Cooperation, Not Conflict

After the 3rd Runway lawsuit, the airport cities avoided conflict with the Port like the plague. Des Moines in particularly put waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay more money into the lawsuit than it could afford. The ‘perfect storm’ of the various Eyman Initiatives, changes to Liquor Tax funding and the lawsuit left the city almost bankrupt for over a decade. Even worse, by staying with the lawsuit well after it was clear that it could not succeed, the cities lost any leverage for a fairer settlement with the Port.

A new breed of council members was elected in all the cities and their mantra was ‘cooperation‘–how can we benefit from partnering with the Port Of Seattle? (The biggest example of this spirit is the Des Moines Creek Business Park, which transformed Port land into the FAA Regional Center and a series of warehouses which largely serve the airline industry. This is trotted out by local pols as a tremendous success for the area, despite the fact that it brings in relatively little sustainable revenue and further enables airport operations.)

OK, So What’s The Prob?

During The Dark Time, a lot of bad things happened to airport communities. But if you listen to protesters now the blame is directed 100% of the time towards the FAA and the Port Of Seattle; never towards the cities. Activists decided that partnering with cities (as well as State and Federal legislators) was key to their success. (Hm… where have I heard that before. 😀 )

The problem with avoiding the notion of the cities’ responsibilities for our current problems is that this approach does not comport with historical fact. The truth is that during The Dark Time city governments were negligent of their residents in many ways and in some cases knowing conspirators with the Port Of Seattle.

Problem #1: Lack Of Oversight

It was during The Dark Time that overwhelming majority of Port Packages were installed. Unfortunately, those initial Port Packages were not properly done. They were often installed using inferior materials and without a good understanding of proper ventilation which has led to so many Port Package Failures. Normally, projects like this are overseen by city building inspectors. But in the case of Port Packages, many city inspections were either pro-forma or simply non-existent. Due to the number of homes being retro-fitted, Building Inspectors were quite open about leaving oversight to the Port. The explanation (when given) was that the FAA’s ‘C6’ program (which is designed to audit noise mitigation) would be far more rigorous since their people had far more experience with this special kind of building than more generalized building inspectors. So in many cases, no one was watching the watchmen–the cities gave up their protection of the public.

Problem #2: Lack Of Advocacy

One of the first things that protesters will point in their indictment of the Port are all the various studies done during the 1990’s which predicted dire consequences for the region if the 3rd Runway were to be built. These studies called for hundreds of millions of dollars for various projects to help mitigate the expected effects of a greatly expanded Sea-Tac Airport. Interestingly, these studies turned out to be remarkably accurate. It turns out that ‘science’ (or at least statistical modeling regarding airport communities) really works!

So the $640,000,000 question is: why weren’t any of these programs implemented? And the simple answer is that all those studies were done in order to win the lawsuit. They were simply tools to achieve strategic objectives, not guidelines that the Port or other higher-level electeds were in any way obligated to pay attention to. So when the lawsuit went away, all those recommendations also evaporated into thin air.

After the end of the lawsuit, no follow-up was engaged in by any of the members of the ACC. The cities simply refused to advocate for any of the recommendations made by these various ‘studies’. No legal action. No lobbying. No public awareness campaigns. No nothing.

Now, since the Port wasn’t feeling any pressure from the cities, they also did nothing. And aside from any notions of ‘altruism’ and ‘morality’, why should the Port have unilaterally taken up any of these mitigation recommendations without at least some joint encouragement from the cities? Governments don’t usually do anything without formally being requested to do so. In fact, it would have been wrong for the Port to engage in any action without the active participation of the cities.

And lest we need reminding, the Port is not some benevolent ‘all-father’ whose job it is to paternalistically take care of their subjects in place of municipal government. They are, at bottom, a corporation. So protesters can waive all those study results until their arms fall off. The fact is that the cities did nothing for their residents.

Problem #3: Lack Of Education

So the cities thought it was a hair-on-fire emergency to fight the 3rd Runway–until the lawsuit ended. And suddenly it wasn’t. Wha hoppened, Lucy? This left residents resentful, confused, cynical and ultimately almost totally ignorant about the ongoing negative impacts from Sea-Tac Airport.  Over half the population has moved away and those that remain want to forget the 3rd Runway Lawsuit ever happened. So as of this writing, virtually none of the general public has heard of the SAMP or understands the significance of the SR509 extension.

This creates a real political problem for both activists and electeds. At some point you have to convince the public that it’s worth time and money to push back against the Port Of Seattle. How do you make that case after first failing in such a spectacular fashion and then pretending like nothing ever happened  for so long? The cities have not only failed to advocate for their residents, they’ve also failed to keep them updated on the fact that these problems are not going away. So cities are in a deep hole when it comes to getting broad public support.

The easiest fix, of course, would be to say, “Gee, we didn’t exactly get things right back there.” But without that basic contrition, it’s pretty hard to tell a consistent story about how “We fought the 3rd Runway. Then we didn’t. Now we’re doing it again.”

The current strategy seems to be to blame the Port for lying about how the 3rd Runway was to be used. But the problem with that excuse is that it doesn’t explain the whole reason for nearly bankrupting the city to fight the lawsuit. In other words, why would you go through all that crap for a runway that was only supposed to be used for ’emergencies’? Again, the Port lied, but you can’t pin all this on them. The cities well understood the growth projections for Sea-Tac, 3rd Runway or no. And that is why they sued. (Fun fact: right before 9/11 Sea-Tac was running almost as many annual operations as they were in 2017. And that’s on only two runways.)


City governments refuse to accept responsibility for, or even acknowledge, their past mistakes. They love the fact that activists reserve all their scorn for the infamous FAA and the evil ‘PoS’. Now why is this? Well, I suppose it’s because the stuff that viscerally bothers activists now (routes, frequency) are controlled by the FAA. Fine.

But whether knowingly or not, a lot of the advocates and politicians are enablers of bad behavior. Because the Port knows what really happened. Despite all their lies, in some ways they are far more honest about our history than the Cities are. And that’s one reason why a lot of the Port corporates won’t take any shit from the Cities. They (correctly) see the hypocrisy of electeds who all of a sudden start complaining about ‘impacts’, when in fact, these same people spent years in Highline Forum meetings talking about ‘creative opportunities for cooperation’.

…And Reconciliation

Now why does this matter? Even if one acknowledges that mistakes were made, what’s the point of dredging up all this unpleasantness. Shouldn’t we focus on now? The problem with avoiding the past is the very reason we created SeatacNoise.Info: Like the philosopher said, when you forget the past, you’re destined to repeat it.

Imagine a scenario where ‘wrongs are righted’, meaning that a whole bunch of money is dished out from somewhere. (It’s telling that, as of this writing, legislators are talking about funding the same mitigation ideas from at least four different sources.) OK, now what?

The cities would still be ignoramuses in terms of oversight and general airport knowledge. Just one example: the overwhelming majority of new homes built in Des Moines since 2009 are not as well sound-insulated as older homes retro-fitted with a new Port Package. (re-read that, please because it’s important!) And none of these newly built homes will ever be eligible for Federally-funded sound mitigation due to Des Moines’ lack of building code. So the city has some ‘splainin’ to do there, Lucy.

Again, let’s say that money rains from the skies like ultra-fine particulates and every home in Des Moines is suddenly fitted with a shiny new Port Package. Will the Building Department step up and provide the oversight they did not during The Dark Time? That would be a lot of homes to inspect. Which means lots more possible errors. Just like during The Dark Time.

And we haven’t even gotten into the areas of noise monitoring, pollution monitoring, improvements to the airfield, etc.

And we haven’t even gotten into areas controlled by the FAA.

Do we reeeeeeeally think the cities are up to that ongoing challenge? Based on past history, do we reeeeeeeeally think the cities have the cultural mindset to provide ongoing advocacy for their residents? Isn’t it far more likely that, even in the best case scenario, the cities band together for a brief moment, get some sort of minor agreement over the SAMP and then, yet again, declare victory and go home, retreating back to their usual concerns for roads and cops.

Because the cities, despite living next to this ongoing threat, have never shown the proper, ongoing concern for the airport. And it isn’t about ‘elections’. Regardless of who has been in power, city councils have only ever thought of airport issues, in an ad hoc manner, like how America fought wars 150 years ago: we stand up an army when there is an immediate danger and then go back to our farms the moment the threat appears to have passed. And that is why we get screwed every decade or so.

That is why we are so easily rolled over with each expansion: we come into each conflict completely unprepared. (I never get tired of reminding the public that the cities were informed of the SAMP as early as 2012.)

The Way Forward

We have to live with Sea-Tac Airport. It’s an ongoing issue, like living next to a coastal town that routinely is rocked by storms. We’ve got to start thinking about managing our relationship with the Port as a city would manage its relationship with the sea–sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad. But never take your eyes off it.

This will require a huge cultural shift by city governments. There has been a brand of incest at the municipal level which we have talked about before. Their knee-jerk response will always be “someone else’s job”. That may be true, but it isn’t our reality. If no one else is doing the job, it’s our job. The first place to start is by acknowledging past mistakes and the lack of a consistent, ongoing strategy that spans changes in personnel and electeds. As they say, you can’t know where you’re going until you come to terms with where you’ve been.

And after that? We need to professionalize the management of our relationship with the Sea-Tac Airport.

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