By Terry Stephens
King County International Airport (BFI), also known as Boeing Field, may be swapped to the Port of Seattle for 47 miles of old railroad track that King County Executive Ron Sims wants to turn into a regional hiking trail.
The aviation community is concerned about the impact on Boeing Field operations, if ownership is transferred to the Port of Seattle. This proposal appears to please some people and scare others, including members of the King County Council.
Sims and Mic Dinsmore, Port of Seattle chief executive, jointly announced the ambitious and complicated plan on Oct. 25. Kurt Triplett, Sims’ chief of staff, and Linda Strout, deputy CEO for the Port of Seattle, presented the plan to the King County Council on Nov. 1.
First, the plan would require the Port of Seattle, which operates Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA), to acquire the 47 miles of track and right-of-way from the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad, and then transfer ownership of the railroad land to King County, along with hundreds of millions of dollars for developing the regional hiking trail.
In turn, King County would deed the airport to the Port of Seattle for a yet undetermined price that would, presumably, be in the hundreds of millions of dollars, according to preliminary numbers being discussed.
The railroad has been interested in selling the rail corridor since 2003. In 2005, Sims signed an exclusive agreement with BNSF, to negotiate a sale price that would enable the county to preserve the corridor, rather than letting it be sold off in parcels. The estimated value of the corridor is between $100 and $180 million, while the estimated value of the airport is at least $200 million, county officials said.
As for the Port of Seattle’s interest, critics of the plan claim port officials have eyed Boeing Field for years as a future air freight hub. They fear freight operations would be moved from Sea-Tac to Boeing Field, once it owned both fields.
Boeing Field a valued asset
BFI is one of the nation’s busiest primary airfields. Only five miles south of Seattle and adjacent to Interstate 5, BFI averages more than 300,000 flight operations annually. Financed by tenant and customer fees, the airport has been one of the most successful public investments in Washington history. More than 3,900 people work at the airport’s 150 tenant businesses. Boeing Field revenues provide more than $1.6 billion annually, in state and local taxes.
Unlike SEA, which provides passenger and freight air services with major airlines and shippers, Boeing Field serves small commercial passenger airlines, private aircraft owners, corporate jets, helicopter businesses and flight services, such as Galvin Aviation and Clay Lacy Aviation.
The airfield is also home to the Boeing Co.’s flight-test program for its 737 airliners, built at the nearby Renton plant. Boeing Field is the airport of choice for visiting celebrities and dignitaries, from the president of the United States to the president of China. The Museum of Flight facilities and outdoor aircraft displays have a major presence at the field.
Dinsmore said the port has no plans to add passenger flights to Boeing Field, although he said that could change once Sea-Tac reaches its capacity of 45 million passengers a year, which is expected around 2020.
The Washington Pilots Association is unsure about the proposal’s impact on aviation or just how conceptual the plan really is at this point.
“The ‘Connections for Our Future’ presentation to the county council was referenced as only a concept,” said Colleen Turner, the WPA’s communications director. “But the final slide showed the goal for finalizing the agreements by Dec. 31, 2006, transmitting the agreements to the council and the port commission by the end of 2006 or early 2007, seeking legislative action by spring or summer of 2007, and transferring property in the fall of 2007 or early 2008.
“For a proposal that is still a ‘concept,’ with many questions yet to be answered, I find it hard to believe that any deal could be finalized by Dec. 31, and have property transfers completed a year later. If these goals are for real, then we in the general aviation community must educate ourselves about this proposal as soon as possible and make our voices heard. ‘Connections for Our Future’ has the potential to dramatically affect general aviation operations at Boeing Field.”
Larry Phillips, King County council president, also has called the proposal’s passage questionable.
“Council members have far more questions than they have answers right now,” he said.
He compared the proposed swap to selling Manhattan to the American Indians for $24 worth of trinkets. He believes operations would change dramatically at Boeing Field if the proposal goes through and that the airport would soon become Sea-Tac II. He sees Sea-Tac and Boeing Field as two very different airports, for a reason.
“Boeing Field is a blue-collar, working-class facility. It’s not your glitzy operation, like Sea-Tac,” Phillips said. “Shifting some cargo operations from Sea-Tac to Boeing Field seems like a very strong possibility. I think it’s something citizens should be very concerned about. The county airport is a major economic engine for the region.”
Councilman Bob Ferguson said the idea is creative, but it also has to prove to be beneficial to the county’s taxpayers.
A sad day for transportation
“It looks to me to be a very sad day for the future of transportation in King County, and for King County taxpayers, who are going to be paying more than they should for this railroad right-of-way,” said Alec Fisken, port commissioner. He added that county taxpayers already pay about $60 million annually in property taxes to fund port operations.
Dinsmore said the proposal has many complicated and interdependent variables, and each one has a major impact on the region’s future.
“Nothing is more important than retaining our region’s competitive edge and enhancing the quality of life for our citizens. We would be consolidating the region’s major airports under one operator,” Dinsmore said. “The nature of King County’s airport wouldn’t change, because we would continue along the strategic plan begun by the county, which does envision a profitable airport.
He said he plans to talk with residents and users of Boeing Field about long-term planning for the airport, and that no plans call for changing the current aviation operations there.
“We want to be sure we understand their needs and desires. We also want to put to rest any fear that Boeing Field might become a busy passenger airport,” Dinsmore said. He said he has had preliminary discussions with port commissioners but hasn’t presented the formal proposal for their vote.
The port would also gain some waterfront property that would allow building an expanded rail yard for moving shipping containers. The Port of Seattle has lost some container handling business to other West Coast ports and sees the rail yard improvements as a way of speeding up cargo movement through the Seattle port.
But at Boeing Field, people have fears about the outcome of the swap, if it happens.
“It they take the same approach at Boeing Field as they take at Sea-Tac, it will be very detrimental to the area. Costs here, if anything, should be lowered,” said Joe Clark, CEO of Aviation Partners, Inc., a developer of winglets for commercial jets based at Boeing Field.
As for the Boeing Co., the largest tenant at Boeing Field, spokesman Peter Conte said the company will wait to see how discussions develop between King County and the Port of Seattle before making any decisions.
According to King County assessor records, the Boeing Field property alone is worth $295 million. The real estate holdings of the Boeing Co., valued at $120 million, aren’t part of the proposed property trade.
“The land value is worth $295 million, and we’d be giving it away at $200 million, which essentially is a gift of public funds, as far as I’m concerned,” said King County councilmember Kathy Lambert. “That doesn’t pass the ‘straight-face test.'”