January 11, 2007 - From the Dec/Jan, 2006-07 issue

San Diego Rejects Proposal for New Airport, Faces Few Options to Ease Burden on Lindbergh

San Diego's Lindbergh Field bears the quaint but unfortunate distinction of being the country's busiest single-runway airport. It is also entirely inadequate for the needs of a growing city and region. Despite a host of plans that have been presented over the years, a clear alternative to Lindbergh has yet to emerge in a county with little suitable land. Most recently, San Diego voters rejected a last-ditch attempt to partially convert Miramar Naval Air Station to civilian use. In the wake of that defeat, MIR spoke with Prof. Steve Erie of UCSD's political science department about the scarce options San Diego now faces.


Steven Erie

Last month San Diego voters rejected a ballot measure that would set preliminary groundwork for a possible airport at Miramar Naval Air Station. The issue of where to site a larger airport in San Diego is more than three decades old. What is the significance of this latest vote, and what are the prospects?

This is really a larger debate about growth. San Diego is deeply divided about whether it wants to be a big city or a very large suburb. The airport is part of that debate. Many people here don't want the growth that an airport produces, particularly in their backyard. San Diegans have been lukewarm to a new airport for 30 or 40 years.

The Miramar defeat means several things. First, there will be a redoubling of efforts to extend the shelf life of cramped Lindbergh Field. Second, major changes in the region's airport governance system appear in the offing. State Senator Chris Kehoe recently held hearings, at which I testified, about the regional airport authority, its alleged failings, and possible reforms.

There is a proposal to take land-use planning powers from the airport authority and transfer them back to the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG). There is also talk about abolishing the airport authority and transferring its powers to SANDAG or even back to the Port District. Stay tuned; a lot is happening down here.

How significant is the need for a larger airport in San Diego County? And what is wrong with Lindbergh, the current airport?

There is significant need for new airport capacity today, not 15 years from now. Two-thirds of San Diego's air cargo is currently trucked up to LAX and Ontario airports. Thirty percent of our passengers go outside the county, primarily to LAX, for long-haul and international flights. Lindbergh is a lovely short-haul airport-if you want to go to the Bay Area, Las Vegas, or Sacramento.

But, at only 600-plus acres, Lindbergh is far too constrained for full long-haul, international, and air cargo service. And there are no other currently available sites in the county for a new airport. Of all possible sites, the best one remains Miramar, which is in military hands and isn't likely to be turned into a civilian airport any time soon.

In this issue of MIR, L.A. County Supervisor Don Knabe said that the Los Angeles region has reactivated the Southern California Regional Airport Authority in the hopes of forming a regional air transport strategy. He said he hopes that San Diego will be involved in some way. How might that entity operate, and how might it relate to San Diego?

I think there is interest in San Diego in teaming up with Los Angeles after the vote on Miramar. They share a common problem: coastal airports, from LAX to Lindbergh, are constrained and are not going to be able to expand much. The aviation demand is along the coast-both passengers and cargo-but available tarmac is in the Inland Empire and northern L.A. County.

We have to find a way to move passengers and air cargo expeditiously from point A to point B. There is already discussion down here about possibly participating in the reactivated Southern California Regional Airport Authority (SCRAA). But there is concern in the L.A. area that San Diego doesn't become another burden on L.A.-area airports. San Diego will need to bring something of value and regional benefit to the table to overcome these concerns.

What are the chances that the regional airport authority will encourage true regionalism and maximization of the region's under-used airports?

To achieve regionalism and maximize utilization, the SCRAA needs to find ways to promote ground access to and airline service at outlying under-used airports. Ground access could involve high-speed rail, low-speed rail, or dedicated truck lanes on the freeways for cargo. It's all about getting passengers and cargo to the available tarmac. Much of the problem is a funding issue. It is going to cost a significant amount of money to improve ground access to outlying airports that could serve both the Los Angeles and San Diego regions.

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One idea being floated is to seek more flexible federal airport funding so that ground access projects can be funded. Regionalism also means finding ways to encourage the airlines to improve service at the outlying airports. Since deregulation, airlines serve markets, not airports. Airlines moving inland may need financial encouragement such as lower terminal fees. Overall, it would be enormously helpful if all of Southern California, from Ventura to the Mexican border, spoke with a united voice.

This week State Senator Kehoe introduced legislation that may lead to an overhaul in the governing structure of the San Diego Regional Airport Authority. What are the senator's intentions, in light of Senator Peace's work four years ago?

It's almost as if we are going back to the situation before Senator Peace's governance reforms. There have been a lot of complaints about the airport authority, not only about the selection of Miramar and placing it on the ballot, but also with the land-use planning decisions regarding the county's many smaller airports.

San Diego is a hotbed of anti-airport NIMBYism. Local officials and residents upset with Miramar and authority land-use decisions have complained to Senator Kehoe. Ironically, the airport authority may pay a steep price for performing the tasks it was charged with: to place a new airport site proposal on the ballot and complete long-delayed land-use planning for the county's airports. With the Miramar defeat, it's now payback time. San Diego's innovative region-wide airport governance reform may be partially or totally dismantled.

In the absence of voter approval directing the city toward Miramar, what options remain?

Absent Miramar, we have limited options in San Diego. To think outside the box, we need to explore options outside the region. That means dialogue with Mexico as well as the Los Angeles area. I am encouraged that the airport authority is in the initial stages of planning for a cross-border terminal linking American passengers directly to Tijuana International Airport. That needs to be pursued. And the discussion of San Diego joining the SCRAA needs to go forward.

Otherwise, in the county itself there is not much more that can be done except for improving Lindbergh Field and better use of existing general aviation airports such as Montgomery Field for corporate jet service.

San Diego has often seemed like a hotbed of regionalization. How successful has it really been?

Outside of airports we've had a host of successful regional initiatives in San Diego. The San Diego County Water Authority has been around since 1946, and it has certainly not been under local attack the way the airport authority has. SANDAG has been given strengthened planning and capital project powers, and is considered a model regional institution. The Port District is another long-standing regional entity.

The one apparent regional failure may be the airport authority, which angered local residents, public officials and the military with its decision to put Miramar on the ballot. But there is a silver lining here. We may actually be witnessing the rise of super-regionalism as San Diego considers possible involvement in the reactivated Southern California Regional Airport Authority.

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