King County Executive Ron Sims has rejected proposals by Southwest and Alaska Airlines to fly passenger service out of Boeing Field. Sims had originally been enthusiastic about exploring the Southwest proposal, arguing that consumers would ultimately benefit from cheaper airfares. But when evaluating the Southwest and Alaska proposals together, it quickly became apparent that the county airport could not support the higher traffic while meeting the impact criteria he had set forth.
“I have said all along that I would not endorse any proposal from any airline if it led to significant traffic and noise impacts,” Sims said.
Sims had also promised that he would never approve a deal that required taxpayer subsidies. According to Sims spokesperson Sandeep Kaushik, a preliminary analysis had suggested that Southwest might be able to operate up to 85 flights a day while meeting FAA noise regulations, and with little or no road improvements in the area. But once the Alaska proposal came in on September 30, the calculus changed. The two proposals combined would have operated 185 daily flights from 16 gates, requiring substantial road improvements and generating significantly more noise.
After receiving legal advice that the county must give both proposals equal consideration, county transportation staff concluded last Friday that it was impossible to open Boeing Field to passenger traffic while meeting Sims’ criteria. Sims was formally briefed at a meeting yesterday, in which staff stepped him through the analysis, and laid out the costs that would be required to proceed with due diligence… including an Economic Impact Analysis and a half-million dollar Environmental Impact Study. Sims decided that it was pointless to proceed with the time and expense of continuing to study the proposals when it seemed exceedingly unlikely that either would be approved in the end.
And so today, Sims announced that he had rejected both proposals.
Personally, I’m glad Sims nixed the deals. I live near Boeing Field, and for purely selfish NIMBY reasons I didn’t relish the thought of increased traffic. I am also relieved to eliminate this issue from the current election debate, as it seemed likely that it might hurt Sims at the polls.
But I think it is important to reiterate in the wake of the issue’s demise, that Sims had never endorsed the Southwest proposal… he had merely expressed enthusiasm about studying it. As I reported last week, even in the midst of a wonkish policy debate at Drinking Liberally, Sims repeated his mantra:
The gist of Sims argument is that the Southwest deal would be good for consumers, while adding jobs to South Seattle. He wants to study the proposal, but would only approve it if noise abatement and traffic concerns can be adequately addressed with no public subsidy.
And the gist of Sims decision to reject the proposal was his conclusion that noise abatement and traffic concerns cannot be adequately addressed without public subsidy.
Now I’m guessing that the more cynical amongst you might dismiss the background information I provided, and accuse Sims of merely bowing to political pressure, and to that I say… so what? No doubt Sims heard from many constituents who were unhappy or even angry about the potential impact increased flight traffic would have on their Seattle neighborhoods. I know for a fact that he heard from me and other unabashed Democrats last week at DL. If public opposition helped influence his decision, that’s a good thing, right? We want our elected officials to listen to voters.
But one thing I’m confident Sims didn’t do was bow to political pressure from the Port Commission or Alaska Airlines or Southwest Airlines lobbyist (and former Sims’ staffer) Tim Hatley. Josh Feit in The Stranger tries to make a big deal over Sims reaction to being questioned about Hatley during his meeting before the editorial board, but this is just a load of something about nothing.
First of all, say what you want about Ron Sims, but I have never seen anybody seriously allege that he has ever used his office to line the pockets of himself, his friends or his family. Disagree with him on policy, criticize him on execution, despise him on ideology… but this is a man who entered public life for all the right reasons. If Sims took offense at efforts to insinuate Hatley’s lobbying into something sleazy, well… he had every reason. (Oh… and Josh… Hatley was hired to lobby reluctant members of the County Council, not Sims. Think about it… why spend your money lobbying the one guy who has expressed enthusiasm about considering the proposal?)
Second, while Sims was not at liberty to comment because he had yet to be formally briefed by staff, he was already aware that they had concluded the proposals could not meet his criteria… before he went before the editorial board last Friday. So I think that puts Sims’ reaction in its proper context… he was essentially accused of being unduly influenced by a lobbyist in favor of a deal that he knew he would likely soon kill.
Personally, I buy the story I previously laid out — that Sims found it pointless to pursue an expensive study of a proposal that clearly wasn’t viable — but whatever the motive I applaud his decision. Southwest came to him with a deal that promised to benefit both consumers and the county, and Sims enthusiastically proceeded to conduct due diligence. In the end, the numbers just didn’t work out, and so he rejected the proposal, based on the criteria that he set forth when the news first broke.
No scandal, no backtracking, no shady dealmaking. Just the sort of tough decision a county executive must make every day, regardless of the political consequences.