Passenger service proposal deserves fair look

The last time an airline sought to offer regular commercial flights to and from Paine Field, the company, Allegiant Air, offered to build its own terminal but wanted the space at the county’s airport for free, with no lease payments.

Snohomish County, wisely, canceled that flight of fancy.

Less than two years later, the county may have a more air-worthy proposal to consider.

New York-based Propeller Investments, which operates a private-public partnership airport in metro Atlanta, Georgia, is in the early stages of talks with the county about its financing of the construction of a terminal with two gates at Paine Field, finding an airline or airlines to operate there and paying a lease.

Propeller appears serious about the plan. For starters, while the project advances, it has agreed to a $3,575-a-month lease option on the property it seeks to use for three years while it designs the project and obtains permits. Once the terminal is in place, Propeller will pay the county $35,755 a month. In the first four years of the 30-year lease, the county would receive 2.5 percent of gross receipts from the terminal’s operation, increasing to 5 percent after that. Propeller also will pay a one-time $330,000 traffic impact fee.

Potentially standing in its way is a legal challenge, currently suspended, of the Federal Aviation Administration’s determination in 2012 that re-affirmed two earlier conclusions that regular passenger service at Paine Field would not have significant noise, traffic or pollution impacts, and that was assuming 23 flights each day by 2018. Initially, service under the Propeller proposal would be for about five flights a day.

A group opposed to regular commercial flights, led by the city of Mukilteo, challenged the FAA’s determination in a suit before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in June, but the legal action was put on hold as no formal proposal was under consideration.

A new proposal could renew the suit to seek yet another environmental study.

Whether the lawsuit moves forward or not, the county must give Propeller’s proposal fair consideration. The County Council is scheduled meet March 2 to discuss and possibly vote on Propeller’s plan.

In accepting federal FAA grants for improvements at Paine Field over the years, the county has obligated itself to consider responsible commercial uses of the airport.

Allegiant Air’s request to fly free was good reason for the county to say no. It will be harder to say no to Propeller if its plans check out.

Opponents have long pointed to the potential for noise and other impacts from increased flights at Paine Field, but with about 300 flights daily into and out of Paine Field, including every plane that Boeing rolls off the line, it’s hard to see how 23 flights a day, much less five, will add significantly to what’s already experienced at Paine Field.

In its 2012 review, the FAA found that the operation of a commercial air terminal would not exceed 65 decibels — about the level of a louder-than-average conversation — beyond the boundaries of Paine Field, a level of noise that would not significantly affect neighboring homes, schools, churches or businesses.

Passenger air service could be invaluable to the county’s economy. As the region continues to grow — as does the demand for the products and services that are built and developed here — Snohomish County will need more options for transportation, not fewer.

Five flights a day sounds like a reasonable start.

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