Washington State Legislature imposes moratorium on new runway development at Western Washington airports in March 1992.

  • By Paula Becker (with research by Daryl McClary and Walt Crowley)
  • Posted 3/21/2003
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 4200

In March 1992, the Washington State Legislature orders the Air Transportation Commission (AIRTRAC) to study air -transportation issues facing the state, and imposes a moratorium on new runway development at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (Sea-Tac) and at other western Washington airports until the study is complete. This action reflects legislators' skepticism of the Port of Seattle's plans for a third runway at Sea-Tac. The Legislature will dissolve the Commission in 1994 and lift the moratorium even though the commission reports that the third Sea-Tac runway will not adequately solve the region's air transportation problems.

A State Overview

The AIRTRAC was established by the Legislature (Senate Bill 6408) in June 1990 to study the complex air transportation issues of the state. The commission was an acknowledgement by the Legislature that the state’s air transportation facilities were in need of a thorough examination in light of both regional growth and the modern air fleet that utilized the state’s airport facilities. The new focus on Puget Sound airport planning activities and the moratorium reflected the skepticism, if not opposition, of some legislators toward evolving plans for a third runway at Sea-Tac International Airport.

In 1988, the Port of Seattle’s “Comprehensive Planning Review and Airspace Update Study” predicted that Sea-Tac International Airport would reach its all-weather landing capacity (the ability to land planes in a safe and timely fashion) by the year 2000. In the same year the Puget Sound Council of Governments (later Puget Sound Regional Council) reached the same conclusion in its “Regional Airport System Plan.”

In 1989, the Federal Aviation Administration completed a study that concurred, citing limits placed on bad-weather operations by the mere 800-foot distance separating Sea-Tac’s two existing parallel runways. As these groups began to move forward in studying how to expand air-transport capacity in the region, the state of Washington stepped in. The State considered it essential that it play a significant role in coordinating Washington’s air transportation facilities. Thus AIRTRAC was established.

The State’s mandate to AIRTRAC was a broad, statewide study of air transportation needs, not only airport capacity but how passengers could access the airports via possible future public transportation systems. AIRTRAC also studied the efficacy of existing environmental impact mitigation efforts. The Commission paid special attention to the idea of operating high-speed trains to connect Western and Eastern Washington communities and airports through Stampede Pass in the Cascades.

Many Studies, Few Remedies

The AIRTRAC commission had 27 members, 22 of whom were voting. Nineteen members were Governor-appointed. Four were legislative representatives appointed by the chairs of the State House and Senate Transportation committees. Five were filled by statute: a representative for the Governor, the Director of the Washington State Transportation Research Center, a representative for the Secretary of Transportation, the Assistant Secretary of Aeronautics, and an FAA representative. These members were drawn from across the state.

AIRTRAC conducted the following public meetings and programs between 1991 and 1993:

  • 32 public information meetings held throughout the state;
  • 5 independent expert review panels, open to the public;
  • 5 focus group meetings intended to encourage citizens to voice their concerns about air transportation;
  • A "public shareholder survey" intended to update Committee members on how the public prioritized transportation policy considerations;
  • Regional public forums;
  • Numerous fact sheets, newsletters, press releases, editorials, and media briefings.

The Commission also reviewed the findings of the Flight Plan Project, a joint project of the Puget Sound Regional Council and the Port of Seattle. The Commission published an interim report on its findings for the State Legislative Transportation Commission in December 1992, and issued its final report in November 1993, a year early.

Final AIRTRAC policy recommendations forecast that growth in the Puget Sound region would be so great that a third runway at Sea-Tac International Airport would not adequately solve the region’s growing air transportation dilemma. In its 1994 session, the Legislature dissolved the commission and the moratorium on Puget Sound airport expansion expired. AIRTRAC staff director Kenneth Reid later became director of the anti-third-runway Airport Communities Coalition.


“Regional Air Capacity -- Public Involvement History,” Port of Seattle memorandum, July 29, 2002; “AIRTRAC: Who Are The Commissioners for AIRTRAC?,” AIRTRAC Public Information brochure, undated; “Report to the Legislative Transportation Committee,” AIRTRAC, November 20, 1992; RCW 47.86 Airport Transportation Commission; Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 1, 1990; February 13, 1992; The Seattle Times, January 27, 1995.

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