Tacoma Narrows Airport plan runs into turbulence over runway issues

Staff writerJune 10, 2014 

Air travel has dropped significantly at the Tacoma Narrows Airport in the decade since the last long-range plan was developed for the facility on the south end of the Gig Harbor Peninsula.

There was no way to predict back in 2003 what impact the recession and the rising cost of fuel would have on private aircraft and smaller commuter flights that operate out of the airport.

Now Pierce County, which purchased the airport from the city of Tacoma in 2008, is nearing the end of a public process meant to guide expectations of the airport for the next 20 years. People are invited to comment Wednesday evening (June 11).

“This is an asset that we need to optimize, and it has to fit the community,” said Deb Wallace, airport and ferries administrator for Pierce County.

The county wants the airport to be self-sustaining so it doesn’t need taxpayer money to survive. In the last year, net revenues came in just above breaking even and are continuing on an upward trend, Wallace said.

Before she took the job in 2010, she researched the airport to understand why it wasn’t making money.

“I looked at this airport and thought there is no reason this airport should not be generating net revenue for the county,” she said.

With 5,002-feet of runway and a location at the edge of the peninsula overlooking the Tacoma Narrows bridges, the airport is suited for private pilots and smaller commuter jets. It also offers space for 13 businesses including aviation mechanics, custom hangar builders, a restaurant and a pet boarding facility.

It’s also the home base for 132 aircraft. That’s the same number it had in 1990 – down from its peak of 200 from 1997 to 2004.

The county wants to see those numbers rise again, and believes its long-range plan will help.

The plan outlines adding septic systems and seeking private tenants to redevelop aging hangars. It also identifies land that could be sold or purchased around the 567-acre site.

One proposal would expand the runway to the north into land that is currently undeveloped. Some neighbors are worried.

The county has no immediate plans to extend the runway because current air traffic doesn’t support it, Wallace said. But that could change in the next 10 to 30 years, and planners want to preserve land now.

“We’re not suggesting going to a commercial operation where there are scheduled flights,” Wallace said. “That would change the airport into a completely different category. We’re looking to maximize what we can do there currently.”

Don Veal has lived next to the airport for 20 years and doesn’t want it to expand. A retired Navy aviator, he doesn’t mind the planes next door. But he’s upset that the county’s plan contradicts previous comments by government officials who said they wouldn’t expand the runway.

“Before they built the tunnel (over Stone Drive, in 2009), they promised us that this tunnel expansion was strictly for a runway safety area and no way was this going to increase the runway length in any shape and form,” Veal said.

Brian Bunker, who was on the advisory committee as a neighborhood representative during the planning process, also doesn’t support the expansion. He lives in the Discovery Pointe neighborhood northwest of the airport.

“Why is the county willing to reduce or potentially reduce the value of the home owners in the area at the expense of something that never might happen?” Bunker said.

An eventual runway extension would require significant additional public comment and participation, Wallace said. That includes changing the county’s community plan for unincorporated Gig Harbor and amending the permit that allowed the tunnel over Stone Drive.

The Federal Aviation Administration also has strict requirements including proof of 500 or more takeoffs or landings per year. In addition, the county would have to secure a combination of funding sources, Wallace said.

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TO GO

What: One last chance for the public to speak about the Tacoma Narrows Airport’s long-range plan.

When: Wednesday (June 11) from 6:30 to 8 p.m.

Where: Meeting room of the Boys and Girls Club of South Puget Sound Milgard Family HOPE Center, 8502 Skansie Ave.

For more information: Click here.

What’s next: The plan will be presented to the Pierce County Council and County Executive Pat McCarthy for review, but no vote is needed. The Federal Aviation Administration grants final approval.

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