Risky Runway

The Port's new mega-project at Sea-Tac rests on a shaky foundation. With serious questions raised about its environmental impacts, its costs, and even its structural feasibility, it looks like a near-billion-dollar boondoggle in the making.

Robert Olander, Des Moines city manager, is a longtime opponent of the third runway. He believes the Port never seriously considered other options.

Robert Olander, Des Moines city manager, is a longtime opponent of the third runway. He believes the Port never seriously considered other options.

Here’s a riddle:


  • is six city blocks long
  • stands tall as an 18-story building
  • weighs more than 20 million tons
  • contains enough material to build three and a half Great Pyramids of Giza
  • will cost more than three-quarters of a billion dollars
  • and is coming soon to a backyard near you?

The answer is: the Port of Seattle’s long-planned third runway for Sea-Tac International Airport—if it flies. Sorry, make that: if it ever gets off the ground. Oh, never mind, you get the idea. More than four years after the region’s press, public officials, and business establishment wished the Port godspeed, the Port has little to show so far except skyrocketing cost projections; a mountain of unanswered questions about environmental impacts, traffic congestion, and public health; and several small mountains of possibly toxic dirt. And though it’s the single biggest engineering project ever planned for the region, the third runway accounts for only about a quarter of the total cost of the Port’s 10-year plan to turn Sea-Tac into a world-class passenger- and freight-handling facility. If the agency isn’t capable of carrying out its runway plan on time and on budget, critics say, why expect it to fulfill its promises in other areas?

As the Port’s construction timetable has fallen further and further behind, third-runway proponents have predictably tried to blame all delays on the usual suspects charged when any large public project runs into difficulties: the “not-in-my-backyard minority” excoriated by ex-mayor Norm Rice in a Seattle Times guest editorial in August.

No question that citizens and public officials in communities impacted by airport noise and traffic have fought the third Sea-Tac runway ever since the idea was first mentioned (see our airport timeline, below). They claim the Port has never followed through on its promises to mitigate the impact of its second runway, which went into service 30 years ago. And in recent months the Port’s inability to move ahead with the third-runway plan has heartened opposition in the South End neighborhoods that stand to be most impacted by its noise and traffic. But since the NIMBYs of Des Moines, Normandy Park, Burien, Federal Way, and Tukwila have so far lost every lawsuit they’ve brought against the Port, runway fans have had to look for other villains this time.

They have found them among the environmental specialists and regulators in the Washington State Department of Ecology “more concerned with process than in protecting the public interest” (to quote Rice again). Specifically, Ecology is charged with refusing the Port a wetland and water quality permit it needs to begin third-runway construction. In an Eastside Journal column last month, onetime Seattle Chamber of Commerce president and developer Bob Wallace went even further, charging that, whether “as a result of ineptitude or malicious intent,” Ecology had “reneged” on the promised permit and thus “stymied” the Port in carrying out its mission.

THE FACTS DO NOT support Wallace’s dark suspicions. In fact, back in 1998, the Port had been granted the permit in question, but decided to take Ecology to court over some of the environmental conditions that permit required. While the judge was still looking into the matter, the Port discovered some wetlands on the construction site it hadn’t previously noticed and thus had to ignominiously withdraw its own application to bring it into line with reality.

However, the more the Port’s planners have tried to tweak their projections about rainwater-, wastewater-, and groundwater-runoff into line with the law, the more questionable the numbers coming out of the computer models designed to test those projections have become. The Port’s second attempt to get a water quality permit was supposed to be approved by mid-June with the expectation that runway construction could begin this summer. Instead, the application has been stuck while modelers in King County’s Department of Natural Resources (hired by Ecology as outside experts) wait for the Port to supply data that doesn’t produce nonsense when fed into their computers.

The Port’s problems providing plausible data to support its environmental plan aren’t just a matter of a decimal point here or there. They are due in large measure to the unprecedented scale of the project and to sketchy prep work by its planning staff early in the design process.

Before she left last month to begin work for the anti-third-runway Airport Communities Coalition, Barbara Hinkle spent most of the 1990s serving as the Port’s senior environmental officer. Looking back, she attributes much of the Port’s failure to identify site and design problems in advance to a massive internal reorganization begun in the mid-1990s as the third-runway project was moving into high gear.

“A lot of the most senior and experienced people at Sea-Tac were moved into other areas just when they were needed most,” says Hinkle. With the loss of staff came a loss of focus on environmental concerns. According to Hinkle, when she tried to alert higher-ups of impending problems with the third-runway design, she found herself labeled a troublemaker, even “a nonperson” within the organization. Finally, shut out from the planning process and convinced that her advocacy for environmental concerns was having no impact, she took the unprecedented step of leaving the Port to join forces with its most determined and vociferous opponents. Prior to her departure, Hinkle sent a letter to the regional director of the federal Environmental Protection Agency spelling out the reasons for her decision.

ALTHOUGH BETTER PLANNING might have helped the Port avoid some regulatory roadblocks, no amount of prep work could have affected the biggest difficulty: the problem of fitting the third runway onto a site too small by nature to contain it.

When Seattle and Tacoma chose the site for a new regional airport back in 1942, 900 acres of fairly level ground on the Bow Lake plateau halfway between the two cities must have seemed to offer all the room that would ever be needed. Today, with 27 million passengers a year leaving and arriving a facility conceived for 20 million, and with air-freight operations growing at double-digit rates, Sea-Tac is spilling over at the edges. There’s no way to grow eastward, where old highway 99 and the City of SeaTac run right along the boundary fence. On the west side development is far lighter, but the terrain falls away steeply and is threaded by numerous small streams draining the area into nearby Puget Sound.

In the good old days of urban development, the solution would have been simple: Buy enough land to build the plateau out as far as necessary, securing the fill beyond the edge of the new runway with a gradual-sloped embankment and burying everything in your path as you go. But, under current EPA and other federal and state regulations, dumping millions of tons of fill on top of wetlands and creeks home to endangered species is a nonstarting option.

The Port’s engineers came up with an ingenious solution: Instead of a gradual bank to shore up the massive weight of a couple of thousand feet of tarmac and its subterranean impact-absorbing pad, they proposed securing the runway with a near-vertical concrete retaining wall similar to the ones you see securing the sides of freeway cuts and overpasses. Except that this one is supposed to be 1,450 feet long and stand, at its highest point, over 170 feet—more than 18 stories— above the creek bed below.

The first difficulty with this Great Wall of Sea-Tac is that nobody has ever built anything like it. Technically called an MSE (short for “mechanically stabilized earth”) wall, the biggest ones built to date are only about 90 feet high. Still, Port engineers confidently predict that the technology can be scaled up successfully. They also express confidence that they can devise a suitable foundation for the immense structure: Maybe by “driving” virtual pilings of compacted gravel into the soft and porous soils beneath it, maybe by replacing same with firmer materials of their own supply, maybe both.

The problem with the proposed solution is that, given the variable nature of the region’s glacially deposited soils, there’s no way to know what kind of foundation would work the best without committing to the job, digging a six-block-long trench, and finding out what’s under there. Such a process pretty much commits the Port to finishing the job, at whatever difficulty and expense, no matter what it finds. Already a hundred million over budget, the Great Wall of Sea-Tac could wind up being a bottomless money pit.

However, the state and federal process for securing permission for construction projects makes no provision for such a dig-and-ye-shall-find approach. Moreover, the sheer size of the Sea-Tac project, plus the enormous quantities of run-off produced by paving over enough land for a jumbo-jet-ready runway, not to mention the powdered landing-gear rubber, jet fuel residues, and de-icing compounds that will inevitably befoul that run-off, mean that even small errors in predicting and controlling wastewater from the third runway could well have catastrophic impacts on all the many streams and wetlands between the Great Wall and Puget Sound.

The Port originally expected to have its permit from Ecology by June; now it’s questionable whether it will be able to meet the agency’s permit requirements by September 29, after which the Port would have to reapply for said permit for a humiliating, and unprecedented, third time. Reapplication would create up to an additional year’s delay and increase its cost to the neighborhood of $1 billion.

Even if the Port manages to persuade the Department of Ecology to give approval to its wastewater plan, its environmental woes aren’t over by a long shot. After the state issues the so-called 401 permit required by the US Army Corps of Engineers, the Corps must issue its own 404 permit, certifying that the Port has done all it can to mitigate impacts on wetland wildlife habitats. To judge by the 35-page list of questions sent to the Port by the Corps’ environmental team, it’s going to be even harder to meet federal standards than the state’s. So far, though they’ve had the Corps’ letter for a month and a half, the Port’s environmental team hasn’t even acknowledged its receipt.

Hence the current impasse. The law and the regulators charged with enforcing the law ask for hard information about the impact of the project and how that impact is to be eliminated or at least reduced. The Port, whether through lack of preparedness or the sheer uncertainties built into the plan, has been unable to provide the information required.

LACK OF THE REQUIRED permits hasn’t stopped work on the third runway entirely. (“I’m told by people who know that you can’t wait for all your permits to begin work,” says Sea-Tac PR man Bob Parker; “If you did you’d never get anything done.”) Thus, convoys of double-trailer earth-moving trucks hauling fill to the future jobsite rank among the commonest sights these days on State Route 509, which runs along the western flank of the airport.

Knowing that construction traffic jams would do nothing for the popularity of their project, Port planners asked the state for permission to build a special interchange off 509 just for trucks. However, they failed to notice that the spot selected contained wetlands and was too small to accommodate their design. And while the Port says the fill it’s hauled in so far meets all environmental cleanliness requirements, since a good part of the dirt already piled up at the south end of the airport comes the dredging of the Port’s west waterway during construction of the new First Avenue South drawbridge over the Duwamish, it’s understandable that critics wonder just how free it is of toxic metals, PCBs, and the like. (The recent discovery of a truck tire sticking out of one of the piles of trucked-in dirt has done nothing to assuage such doubts.)

How to explain such appalling planning gaffes when the Port is already under such intense scrutiny over environmental issues? “When I started at the Port 10 years ago, there was a real culture of consideration for environmental values,” says Barbara Hinkle. “But over the years the message from the top has come more and more to be ‘Get the job done, never mind the environment, never mind cost overruns, we’ll take care of all that later.’ That kind of message filters down to the people on the ground, it tells them they can slough off or ignore the regulations they’re supposed to be working under. In my last two years with the Port, we had violation after violation of wetland and pollution regs, and objections got no hearing—the project was to move ahead at any cost.”

WHAT IF IT turns out it can’t move ahead, at least in its current form? Has anyone developed an alternative to ease the region’s growing air traffic gridlock? Unfortunately, the answer is no. Such an alternative was part of the regional planning process begun by the Puget Sound Regional Council in 1990 under the brave title “Vision 2020.” That process mandated a regionwide study of air transport opportunities, including but not restricted to a third Sea-Tac runway, increased commercial use of Snohomish County’s Paine Field and Pierce County’s McChord Field, as well as construction of a brand-new regional airport at one of a dozen or more possible sites from Arlington to Olympia.

But the very suggestion that someone beyond the citizens of South Seattle might have to share the pain entailed by the region’s “progress” produced such backlash that in late 1994 representatives of King County’s three neighboring counties combined to kill even study of any Sea-Tac alternatives. Their decision was made the easier by the willingness, even eagerness, of the Port’s management to take on the job solo.

Robert Olander, now city manager of Des Moines and one of the most resolute third-runway opponents, was part of the site-evaluation committee whose recommendations were tossed aside without consideration by the body that had commissioned them. Though he can’t prove it, Olander is convinced that the leadership at the Port of Seattle had decided to go the third-runway route before the PSRC ever began its evaluation process.

“There was data to show that if a second regional airport were built, it would absorb most of the traffic growth projected for the region,” he says. “That would have made the economic justification of a third Sea-Tac runway questionable at best. But the Port of Seattle wasn’t going to let any of the federal money available for airport development go to competitors without a fight.”

The fight was waged not only through the editorial pages of the establishment dailies but in the halls of Congress, with the Port mobilizing local political leaders to lobby the state’s delegation to make sure that Sea-Tac had a lock on the Department of Transportation’s available funding for air transport development in the region.

IF IT TURNS OUT that Sea-Tac’s management has bitten off more than it can chew, the whole region will bear the consequences. Smaller facilities around the Sound, denied a slice of the pie that Sea-Tac has proposed to devour whole, are in no position to sop up excess demand, while tens of millions in tax revenues have already been spent with nothing useful to show for it. Without admitting that his three-quarter-billion-dollar baby is in trouble, even the Port’s gung-ho general manager M.R. “Mic” Dinsmore is now talking about the need to think about supplementary approaches to the region’s air traffic growth problem.

“Back in ’96 the PSRC decided that two things had to happen right away: We had to move forward on a third runway for Sea-Tac and start the process to settle on a site for a new regional airport—because everybody knew that a third runway was at best a medium-term solution. Now, as far as I know, there’s been no change in that situation, but I haven’t heard much recently about the second part of that equation, have you?”

We certainly haven’t. On the last day of August, the PSRC, the body that originally issued “Vision 2020,” issued a draft of an update, this one called “Destination 2030,” in which air traffic capacity and airport development aren’t so much as mentioned in the table of contents. But if you search the 219-page document assiduously, you’ll find the subject mentioned on pages 83 through 85.

There you’ll learn:

*that annual passenger traffic at Sea-Tac Airport is projected to increase from 27.7 million passengers in 1999 to 44.6 million by the year 2020, according to the Port;

*that the Port’s current 10-year capital improvement plan (2000-2009) for Sea-Tac Airport calls for expenditures of $3.4 billion (not including any additional cost overruns due to delay of the third runway);

*that only $1.4 of the $3.4 billion is slated to come from “current revenue sources”;

*and that the remaining $2 billion is to come from some unspecified combination of federal subsidies, borrowing, and airport user fees—from parking fees, “passenger facility charges” (the surcharges added to the price of tickets and car rental contracts), and “fuel hydrant system use charges” (paid by the airlines but passed right on to the consumer).

That’s assuming, of course, that the third runway ever gets built. If it doesn’t, the Port’s whole elaborate development plan—the environmentally questionable freight-handling area slated to be built south of the airport and a new satellite passenger terminal to the north—collapses under its own weight: No third runway means no increased traffic; no increased traffic means no increased user fees, landing fees, hydrant fees, or parking fees; no new fees means no money to pay off development bonds—including those needed to pay for the vast remodel of the airport’s Concourse A, already begun and expected to produce snarled traffic and frazzled traveler tempers for much of the coming decade.

In short, the third runway not only rests on a shaky foundation of assumptions, but is itself a shaky foundation for a complex and expensive array of other publicly financed Port projects. If the Port proceeds with the runway, it risks becoming mired further in an environmentally harmful, risky, and potentially far more expensive project than it has bargained for. If it doesn’t, the region’s transportation problems remain and the Port loses its ability to fund other projects, some of which are already under way.

For decades, service as a commissioner for the Port of Seattle has been a near-sinecure: light duties and a dynamite travel and entertainment allowance—not much money, true, only a token $6,000 a year, but a great way to build the old public service r鳵m頷hile staying tight with the local business-development-trade establishment. True, there have been periodic complaints that the Port is ineptly managed, inefficient, and unresponsive to the real needs of the community, but none of these objections have ever resonated much with the public. If it should turn out that all the Port has to show for 15 years and $100 million invested in the region’s air transport future is a large pile of dirt and hour-long waits for the Sea-Tac subway, the perks of a Port position may no longer be enough to offset the grief.

UPDATE: At approximately 2:30 pm Thursday, after consultation with Governor Locke’s chief of staff Joe Dear, Port of Seattle executive director M.R. Dinsmore officially withdrew the Port’s application to begin construction of a third runway at Sea-Tac International Airport. The Port plans to re-apply to the state Department of Ecology for the necessary permit within two weeks. The application—the Port’s third attempt to secure approval of its plan to protect the environment from the impact of the $800,000,000 construction project—must be approved by Ecology within one year of application date. It is estimated that reapplication could delay the planned opening of the third runway by at least a year, and increase its cost to the near neighborhood of $1 billion.

A short history of flight

or, Maybe we should have just stayed at Sand Point . . .

1921—The Northwest’s first major airport opens at Sand Point on Lake Washington. It tanks financially.

1926—King County talks the US Navy into taking over Sand Point.

1928—The county gets into the airport business again, this time at Boeing Field, south of downtown.

1942—A month after Pearl Harbor, the Feds offer to chip in a cool million toward a new “super-airport” for the Puget Sound area.

1943—Just one year later, construction begins.

1944—Just in time for Halloween, Sea-Tac opens. Total cost: $637,000 for land (900 acres), $4.25 million for construction.

1947—Northwest Airlines begins scheduled civilian service out of Sea-Tac. Total passenger load in first year of operation: 130,500.

1950—Sea-Tac’s runway is extended to 7,500 feet.

1956—Runway extended to 8,500 feet.

1960—Runway extended to 10,200 feet; parking area doubled to 2,000 spaces. Combined population of King and Pierce counties tops 1.25 million.

1962—Thanks to the Century 21 World’s Fair, passenger traffic grows 25 percent and tops two million.

1967—Port approves $44 million for second runway. Voters approve building a domed stadium but reject funding a regional transit system. Sea-Tac traffic tops 4 million.

1970—Second runway completed. First 747 lands at Sea-Tac. Voters again reject a regional transit plan.

1973—Port begins buying property around Sea-Tac to serve as a “noise buffer.”

1978—Congress approves airline deregulation. In the next six years, the number of airlines serving Sea-Tac more than doubles to 26.

1989—Port and Puget Sound Regional Council join to study ways to expand or supplement Sea-Tac. Code name: Flight Plan.

1993—PSRC approves Flight Plan proposal to simultaneously explore Sea-Tac expansion and determine site for a second regional airport.

1994—After a firestorm of protest by property owners in a four-county area, PSRC kills its own plan to study where to site a second regional airport.

—PSRC gives go-ahead for a third runway at Sea-Tac. Port budgets $1.5 billion for improvements. Passenger traffic tops 23 million.

—United Airlines questions need for third runway. Port announces third runway will be open in 2005.

1998—Delta Airlines questions economics of third-runway plan. Port discovers wetlands on construction site, withdraws plan in order to rewrite it.

1999—Port submits revised third-runway plan; community opponents attack it on technical, environmental, and economic grounds.

2000—Finish date for third runway slips to 2006, cost estimate rises to $770 million. Total cost of airport improvement through 2009 now set at $3.4 billion.


See the Airport Communities Coalition Statement on the Withdrawal of Port of Seattle 401 Permit Application.

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