County, Consultant To Blame For Paine Field Report Delays
Andy Skotdal, Managing Editor
Fox Sports 1380, Classic Country 1520, Everett Post
Everett, WA. - Snohomish County appears to be in the driver’s seat when it comes to producing the environmental assessment for commercial air at Paine Field. Paine Field airport manager Dave Waggoner and assistant manager Bill Dolan are overseeing the direct day-to-day interaction with the consultant hired to develop the environmental assessment, and internal Federal Aviation Administration emails make clear that the timeline, and responsibility for the delays, has been managed by the County. While the FAA remains in editorial control of the document and makes the ultimate decision of whether the document is ready to be issued, the report is now two years late, and delays in preparation of the report are creating new challenges for the FAA.
Fox Sports 1380, Classic Country 1520, and the Everett Post filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the FAA on May 29, 2012 requesting copies of all public comments on the environmental assessment, and all internal FAA communications inclusive of email, memos, voicemail, or other information related to the timing of publishing the draft environmental assessment, the final environmental assessment, and final determination dating back to December 2009. The response from the FAA came in two parts. The comment letters were provided June 22, and a partial response to the request for internal communications was provided on August 9. Over 3800 pages of documents were provided by the FAA.
Concerns over the capabilities of the consultant, Bernard Dukelberg & Associates appear to first surface two years ago when the report was originally projected to be issued. In an email to deputy airport director Bill Dolan, FAA environmental specialist Cayla Morgan criticized the consultant for a “lack of attention to detail.” Scolding the County, she added, “We can’t emphasize enough the need for quality control before sending to the FAA for review.” What originally started as a report projected to cost $377,000 has ballooned into a consulting boondoggle now projected to cost $600,000.
Washington, D.C. officials actively engaged on the timeline in February 2012 including virtually every key official in the Airports Division of the FAA home office. Internal FAA emails reveal frustration with the progress of the report. One regional FAA official underscored the frustration when asking for an update on “The Pain.” According to the emails, the environmental assessment has been returned to Bernard Dunkelberg & Associates at least six times, often with repetitive, identical criticisms related to failure to properly respond to questions, poor formatting, and failure to address requested corrections multiple times over. The emails call into question Snohomish County’s ability to manage Bernard Dunkelberg as a consultant and at one point in February, the FAA contemplated taking over the process from the County and finalizing the environmental assessment internally in order to ensure publication of the report. It’s unclear why Bernard Dunkelberg was able to continue invoicing the county for doing work over again.
Two voicemail messages were left with Ryk Dunkelberg explaining the nature of the FAA emails and affording him an opportunity to refute the characterizations, but the phone calls went unanswered.
Problems For The County
In June 2010, County Executive Aaron Reardon hired a known Paine Field opponent as his second-in-command by selecting former Edmonds Mayor Gary Haakanson. Haakanson oversees executive director Peter Camp. Airport manager Dave Waggoner reports to Camp. Haakanson voted as mayor to oppose the commercial use of Paine Field on June 7, 2005 along with the Edmonds City Council. According to a December 18, 2007 Herald article, Haakanson was among those celebrating as Snohomish County Councilman Kirke Sievers withdrew his request for support of commercial air service during a Council meeting. In the May 16, 2007 Report On Mediated Role Determination For Paine Field, Haakanson underscored his support for the MRD which expressly discouraged commercial air service. Haakanson also penned a guest editorial in the Mukilteo Beacon in which he implied communities around Mukilteo were being railroaded by the commercial air service proposal.
The county airport manager is hired and fired at the discretion of the county executive, Aaron Reardon, who has expressed his opposition to Paine Field’s use as a commercial airport as far back as 2004. It is impossible to know whether the placement of Haakanson has contributed to the delay in the report, whether Waggoner is being allowed to do his job and manage the consultant, or whether Waggoner has been asked by the Executive’s office to let the report and the consultant continue to slide. However, multiple sources have confirmed that Waggoner, like the FAA, is at the very least “frustrated” by the entire process.
What is known from the FAA’s email release is that around April 2011, as elections were heating up for county executive, someone within Snohomish County specifically asked the FAA to withhold issuance of the environmental assessment as prescribed by the original timeline until after the 2011 election so that the report would not become a ‘political issue’. FAA Regional Airports Manager Carol Suomi refused, writing, “I would not want to add a six month delay just because somebody is concerned about his election.” Waggoner confirmed he was the one who made the request, but categorically denies that he was asked to do so by anyone from the Executive’s office. In a prepared statement responding to a request for an interview, Waggoner was allowed to state, “[A]s Airport Director, I never want Paine Field to become a political football. I’m always concerned about the impact that can have on operations and my staff. That is my opinion on elections. Snohomish County’s position is to stay out of the way and let the FAA lead the process.”
Potential Appeal Issues
The delay in the report has created appeal opportunities for opponents beyond those opponents have already seeded through letters. Snohomish County contracted Bernard Dunkelberg as their independent consultant to complete the environmental assessment. Ryk Dunkelberg is the primary consultant overseeing all phases of drafting the document on behalf of Snohomish County, but Dunkelberg’s firm was acquired by Mead Hunt in June creating a new headache for the FAA. Mead Hunt authored the 2004 report for Snohomish County that identified regional, non-stop jet service to San Francisco, non-stop jet service to Phoenix, and non-stop Portland/Spokane service as the most viable uses of Paine Field as a commercial airport. If the environmental assessment is issued next month under the Mead Hunt banner, opponents are likely to challenge whether the final report is truly impartial given that Mead Hunt has already reached conclusions on Paine Field’s use as a commercial airport. The Snohomish County Council was not made aware of the consultant change when they were briefed by Aaron Reardon’s executive director, Peter Camp, in late May when they voted to approve modifications to the consulting agreement.
Furthermore, the two year delay in the report will enable opponents to question whether the underlying data in the report is stale. To address this, the FAA directed the consultant to incorporate more current Terminal Area Forecast data, to address recent modifications to Instrument Approach Procedures, and perform an evaluation of the maximum use of the terminal being evaluated. The first two revisions, mostly driven by the delay in producing the environmental assessment, factored in to pushing the publication timeline back to September. The reevaluation of the maximum use of a two-gate terminal created the need for an appendix and an additional public comment window. Waggoner was allowed to state the maximum use decision was driven by the FAA, and contributed to a delay of several months, even though the maximum use being evaluated in the appendix is not ‘reasonably foreseeable’ and the FAA is not required to evaluate that option. People contacted for this article are confident the mid-September target publication date will be met, but whether the new public comment window on the appendix throws the future timeline into turmoil remains uncertain.
Analysis of Comment Letters
Fox Sports 1380, Classic Country 1520, and the Everett Post spent twenty hours reviewing and categorizing nearly 110 of the 900 plus comment letters received by the FAA. Internal FAA estimates place the level of support letters at 40%, which is extraordinarily high for an environmental assessment for a controversial project. What the FAA does not acknowlege is that if the level of support is 40%, approximately 360 of the 900 letters do not require a response beyond acknowlegement in the environmental assessment. In other words, the consultant is actually dealing with 540 comments and letters. Of the sample group of opposition emails, the vast majority of the arguments are technical in nature, but all the arguments generally fall around the same 15 or 16 themes. Typically, a consultant will create a comprehensive response around each theme with specifics to address unique issues raised by negative commenters. The consultant will then place footnotes into the negative comment letters to identify which response addresses each issue. Apparently, Bernard Dunkelberg was having trouble doing that. In an email on February 10 to Catherine Lang, deputy associate administrator for airports at FAA headquarters, Steven Hicks, the regional acting manager of the airports division wrote, “We’re on the fifth revision of response to comments…There has been difficulty in getting the consultant to fully respond to comments…We are ensuring our legal staff looks at it every step of the way due to expected litigation.”
Citizens Group Makes An Impact
With no public information as to the status of the environmental assessment, Fox Sports 1380, Classic Country 1520 and the Everett Post made contact with the FAA’s environmental specialist Cayla Morgan in early May to inquire as to the environmental assessment timeline. Morgan stated the document would be issued in July. However, later in May, Citizens Right To Fly launched a public relations effort to force a public statement from the FAA regarding the timing of the environmental assessment. The effort involved radio announcements on Fox Sports 1380 and Classic Country 1520 and a press release to supporters and the local media asking for people to petition the FAA to publicly identify when the environmental assessment would be published. Emails from the public came almost immediately. Within five hours of the issuance of the Citizen’s press release, the FAA held an all-hands-on-deck meeting of key regional staff. The next day the publication timeline was publicly pushed back to September. Two days after that meeting, assistant manager for airports Stan Allison sent a terse email to County airport manager Dave Waggoner and assistant airport manager Bill Dolan, “We are going to really need to make sure we stick to the schedule! I am doing everything I can on our end to make sure that happens. I would strongly recommend we keep a very close eye on the consultant’s work to make sure we hit all the deadlines and deliverables we need to. I’m sure I speak for all of us when I say we don’t want to have to go through this again.”
Editorial Disclosure: Andy Skotdal consulted Citizens’ Right To Fly on an infrequent basis.