The pain that is Paine Field

Seventy-five years ago, Franklin Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration built what is now Paine Field, never anticipating a battle over commercial air service that would sinew its way into the 21st century. The 1,000-acre facility, which served on and off as a military installation, was put under Snohomish County’s purview in the mid-1960s. And so began the long, twilight struggle pitting exuberant air-service boosters against noise-addled NIMBYs.

The latest chapter reinforces the wisdom of Alexis de Tocqueville nearly two centuries ago, that “there is hardly a political question in the United States which does not sooner or later turn into a judicial one.” As The Herald’s Noah Haglund reported Monday, the cities of Mukilteo and Edmonds, along with Save Our Communities, an anti-commercial group, are headed to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Wednesday to challenge a 2012 Federal Aviation Administration report. Consistent with two earlier reports, the FAA determined that commercial air service offers no significant environmental or noise impacts.

The FAA’s Final Environmental Assessment was a three-year slog. Over the past quarter century, Paine Field has become a case study in studies. This includes the Boeing Master Plan for facility expansion for the 777, the Southwest Everett/Paine Field Master Plan, and the Paine Field Master Plan noise studies and updates.

There are a few takeaways: Saying “no” to interested airlines could imperil Paine Field’s sacrosanct FAA funding. And commercial service at an airport, which currently runs at only 48 percent capacity, will be a boon for Snohomish, Skagit and Island County families who deserve alternatives to Sea-Tac and Bellingham. A two-gate terminal puts Paine Field on par with Walla Walla and Wenatchee. Big airports, they are not.

The second takeaway is cautionary, based on Allegiant Air’s demand last summer that it receive free land in exchange for building its own terminal. As we noted then, commercial aviation at Paine Field would get off on the wrong foot if we gave away the land, forfeited control over construction and yielded management of the terminal to a single airline.

Beware public entities committing serious money to build and operate proprietary enterprises. The Pacific Northwest is littered with ambitious, half-bankrupt projects of this ilk: sports complexes, public toilets, parking garages and upgraded airports.

Market demand and the private sector should drive investment decisions regarding Paine Field, not the city or the Port of Everett. A hemorrhaging of public dinero and residents can expect another 75 years commuting to Sea-Tac.

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