A Snohomish County Council panel has given its go-ahead to a $650,000 contract with an engineering firm to design a terminal big enough to handle passengers for 23 commercial flights per day proposed for the county's airport.
The full council is expected to vote on the contract Wednesday. with URS, a San Francisco-based firm with a branch in Seattle.
The terminal would accommodate flights operated by the two airlines that have expressed interest in flying from Paine Field -- Allegiant Air of Las Vegas and Alaska Airlines of Seattle.
Design work will not start until one or both airlines agree to reimburse the county for any unpaid terminal costs should they withdraw their interest or discontinue service once it begins, said Peter Camp, a county executive director in charge of the airport.
Negotiations continue with both airlines, he said.
"My worst-nightmare scenario is we spend three-quarters of a million dollars and the airlines say 'Oh, that's nice, we changed our minds,'" Camp said.
Allegiant seeks to offer four flights per week from Paine Field to Las Vegas, increasing over five years to as many as 20 flights per week.
Alaska would run 70 flights per week to start, with 42 commuter flights offered between Everett and Portland, and the rest to Honolulu, Maui and Las Vegas.
Alaska originally wanted to run about twice that many flights, but then as a federal environmental review dragged on for three years, the airline changed its position on whether to run flights out of the airport.
Alaska officials say that because of recent additions and improvements at Sea-Tac Airport and Bellingham International Airport, the airline would fly from Paine Field if and only if another airline was to serve the airport first.
That airline could be Allegiant, which has remained steadfast, at least publicly, in its interest in Paine Field.
Allegiant, however, has yet to get on board with the idea of reimbursing the county for potential unpaid terminal costs, a spokeswoman said.
"We tend to not make commitments of service like that," airline spokeswoman Jessica Wheeler said. "It's not something we would normally agree to."
She confirmed that the airline and the county are negotiating.
"I think it's a fair statement they haven't agreed yet," Camp said. "It's not necessarily clear they are going to agree. We are talking."
Alaska spokesman Paul McElroy reaffirmed the airline's position that Alaska would not fly into the Snohomish County airport unless another airline does so first.
Still, he said Alaska officials are talking with the county.
"If airlines do fly into Paine, Alaska would pay our fair share for a terminal," McElroy said.
The federal government requires any airport large enough for commercial flights to provide space for any airline that wants to fly. To refuse would jeopardize federal money for maintenance and other projects.
The law does not require an airport operator, however, to foot the bill for a terminal or other improvements.
A majority of Snohomish County elected officials have said they oppose commercial flights at the airport and would not build a terminal to attract an airline.
"It's non-negotiable, the FAA does not require us to (pay for a terminal) because that becomes an effective subsidy, and so we are not required to do that and we are not going to do that," Camp told the county council in 2009.
State law requires grading and building permits for the terminal to be cleared by an environmental study. Those permits won't be prepared until the design is done. The county has agreed to pay Parametrix of Auburn about $90,000 for the environmental review when the time comes, Camp said.
The federal environmental study concluded in December that the flights originally proposed by the airlines would not significantly increase noise, pollution or traffic in neighborhoods around the airport.
The city of Mukilteo has appealed that decision in federal court. The city of Edmonds also is named as a plaintiff in the appeal.
Barbara Lichman, the Irvine, Calif., attorney handling the case for Mukilteo, said she's scheduled to file her argument with the Ninth Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals on July 22. It's hard to tell when a decision on the suit would come, she said.
Opponents say more aircraft noise would degrade nearby communities and reduce property values. Supporters of flights tout convenience and potential economic benefit.
The mere presence of the court action won't stop the work on the county side, Camp said.
In 2009 the county released rough plans for an 18,000-square foot modular building near the current Paine Field office building, which now has only a small passenger waiting area.
A covered breezeway would connect the old and new building, which at the time was estimated to cost about $3.5 million.
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