Yakima's interest in using its airport to relieve crowding at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport has the attention of state transportation officials.
Amid airspace congestion reports and considerable opposition from westside cities and counties to a new airport, Rob Hodgman, the Washington State Department of Transportation senior aviation planner, said one community in Central Washington has stepped forward to help.
"Just recently, we've found a potential partner in Yakima," Hodgman said Wednesday as he discussed the matter with the Washington State Transportation Commission.
"There's a lot of work that would be needed to make that happen, but at least we have a willing partner," he added.
Hodgman was updating the state transportation panel about the Legislature-appointed Commercial Aviation Coordinating Commission. The commission has been asked to recommend a new site for a regional airport by June.
As The Seattle Times reported in November, an analysis of current and future use of Sea-Tac and Paine Field near Everett estimates that current plans for expansion at both sites will enlarge their capacity from 50 million annual passengers pre-pandemic to about 67 million by 2030.
By 2050, air passenger traffic in the Seattle region is expected to increase to 94 million annual passengers, leaving a capacity shortfall of 27 million passengers, The Times reported.
Additionally, air cargo traffic through the region is expected to more than double, from 610,000 tons per year before the pandemic to 1.4 million tons in 2050.
Therefore, the committee recommends that the state expand both Sea-Tac and Paine Field while also building a new airport on undeveloped land, The Times reported.
In 2019, the Legislature voted unanimously and Gov. Jay Inslee signed a bill creating the CACC to consider the issue of overcrowding at Sea-Tac and to identify potential sites for a new airport.
According to WSDOT, the commission has 11 voting members (four positions are vacant) and 12 non-voting members, including Hodgman, State Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, and State Rep. Tom Dent, R-Moses Lake, who has a background in aviation.
The CACC has been meeting since October 2019 and announced three final site recommendations for a new airport in October 2022: two in Pierce County, southeast of Tacoma, and one in Thurston County, just east of Olympia.
On Wednesday, Hodgman reviewed the criteria used by the commission, including requiring sites to be within 100 miles of Seattle and west of the Cascade Mountains.
"One of the challenges of siting an airport of this size — 3,100 acres and two runways — is that it doesn't fit in an urban space," he said.
This prompted the commission to consider greenfield areas. The three finalists revealed in October, although rural areas, have faced objections from elected officials, nearby residents and farmers, The Seattle Times reported.
As Hodgman told the transportation panel, "We haven't had anyone in Western Washington come forward offering a site for consideration. Quite the contrary: We've had many governments and municipalities indicate their opposition."
In addition, a review of airspace use and capacity over the three finalist sites conducted by the Federal Aviation Administration and military officials show Seattle-area airspace to be extremely congested, Hodgman said.
The three sites where airspace could support a new regional airport — located west of Shelton, near Rochester and near Toledo in southwest Washington — are smaller airports which were eliminated from consideration by the CACC due to other factors, Hodgman added.
All of the above prompted Yakima City Manager Bob Harrison and the Yakima City Council to inquire with WSDOT officials about having Yakima Air Terminal's site considered for review as the state seeks a new airport.
"It appears the solutions on the west side of the state that were initially identified by WSDOT are not very viable," Harrison told the Yakima Herald-Republic in December. "The Yakima airport layout and land near the layout would provide an opportunity to expand the runway that would allow for any class of airplane to land and take off.
"Additionally, Yakima airport has several inherent strengths as an option, including but not limited to the close location of rail for movement of produce and goods, excellent interstate transportation in the region, and the presence of education establishments that can provide excellent training of the workforce in the Yakima region," he added.
The council authorized city officials to conduct a community survey about the possibility of Yakima Air Terminal expanding to be the state's new regional airport.
The survey, available at http://bit.ly/3ZaasaS through the end of the month, already has generated a high rate of response and shown overwhelming support for a potential regional airport, said Randy Beehler, the city's communications and public affairs director.
As of Thursday, Beehler said, of the 932 people who have taken the survey, 774 of them (83%) have answered "strongly support" to the question "Washington state is planning to build a new regional airport in the next decade. To what extent would you support or oppose the current Yakima airport being expanded and turned into this regional airport?"
Other possible answers were "somewhat support," "neither support nor oppose," "somewhat oppose" and "strongly oppose," Beehler said.
Yakima Air Terminal, also known as McAllister Field, was established in 1926, and its first runways were built in the 1930s. Today the site covers 825 acres, according to the FAA. The current passenger terminal opened in the 1950s, and today its southeast-northwest runway is 7,604 feet long, allowing Boeing 737 aircraft to take off and land.
Its air traffic control tower, located adjacent to Washington Avenue, opened in 1974 but closed in 2022 after a car crashed into it. It is awaiting FAA approval on planned repairs, airport officials said this fall.
The Yakima airport currently offers only one daily outbound and inbound commercial flight to and from Sea-Tac due to Horizon Air schedule reductions made in September. In the past decade, as many as four flights each day arrived from and departed to Sea-Tac from Yakima.
Hodgson told the state transportation commission that the airspace study and other technical findings regarding the three regional airport finalist sites will be discussed at the CACC's March 2 meeting. The commission plans to meet in May for a formal vote on a final recommendation to the Legislature, which is due June 15.