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Monday, February 13, 2006 | A small crowd paces inside the Scottish Rite Temple in Mission Valley. In a room lit by fluorescent lights and painted in drab taupe and crème colors, they’re talking in quiet voices and studying massive charts detailing reasons to build a new airport.

Related Links

Check out the study on the Campo and Imperial Valley sites (PDF)

San Diego County Regional Airport Authority Chairman Joe Craver stands nearby, waiting for a town hall meeting to start. Soon, he’ll lead a presentation entitled: “The Future of Air Transportation in the San Diego Region.” Right now, a television camera is quizzing him. He has just scarfed down a brownie; the chocolaty smell hangs on his breath.

“We’re in the site selection process, and we’re getting very close,” Craver is saying. “This is exciting. This is exciting.”

Then comes the question Craver has become so diplomatic at avoiding – he’s required to, by law. Where should the airport go?

Craver pauses.

“We’re still evaluating,” he says.

But the pace has picked up this year. After nearly 50 years of discussion and at least 30 studies about the future of Lindbergh Field, the Airport Authority wants to choose a new site by May. Their proposal will then go on November’s ballot for voters to consider. A “Yes” vote will move, or expand, the airport; a “No” vote leaves the authority with an uncertain future.

The decision has the potential to define the region and the way people access it by air for the next century.

That means a lot of work must be done in three months. The authority hasn’t yet received studies detailing the costs of building an airport at three area military bases. They’re due later this month. And the authority has just recently begun considering two supplemental sites in North County.

Justifications

Airport Authority officials cite those increases to justify the need for a new airport. Though the authority plans a $500 million expansion to add 10 gates by 2015, officials say air traffic will continue to outpace space. The result: air travelers will see flight delays, higher fares, more frequent airport traffic jams, while having fewer new destinations added.

The authority paints a dire economic picture of what will happen without a new airport. The area could forego $90 billion in gross regional product by 2030, according to an economic analysis.

That’s why the authority, created under state legislation in 2001, has spent $8 million studying alternate sites.

The authority has whittled down the number of sites from 32. Ask Craver, and he will say nine sites remain under consideration. Technically, he’s right. But the authority has all but eliminated March Air Reserve Base in Riverside County and a site in Borrego Springs because transportation costs would be too high, said Angela Shafer-Payne, the authority’s vice president of strategic planning.

That leaves seven sites, plus two North County supplemental sites the authority is considering at a meeting today.

Of the seven left, four belong to the military: Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Naval Air Station North Island and two sites at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar.

Two are in the desert: the Imperial Valley and Boulevard.

The seventh is an unlikely plan to expand Lindbergh Field, which Shafer-Payne said would displace 18,000 residents, while only marginally increasing capacity.

In the desert

Each has a high price tag: $17.4 billion to build in the Imperial Valley; $16.7 billion to build in Boulevard. That doesn’t include paying for environmental impacts.

Those price tags are nearly triple the cost of construction of the Denver International Airport. The mile-high Colorado airport is the only major municipal airport built in the United States in the last 30 years. It’s one of the world’s largest, with six runways and 53 square miles of land. That’s about a sixth the size of the city of San Diego. And all for just $4.9 billion – or about $6.1 billion in 2005 dollars.

Much of the cost at the desert sites comes from a proposed magnetic levitation high-speed train, which would cost between $8 billion and $10 billion.

The desert sites have other challenges. The endangered Quino checkerspot butterfly calls Boulevard home. So does the Peninsular bighorn sheep. The Swainson’s Hawk and flat-tailed horned lizard – both protected species – are found at the Imperial Valley site.

Mitigating the environmental damage caused by construction would cost between $200 million and $1.6 billion in Boulevard, $800 million to $4.9 billion in the Imperial Valley.

Because the sites are so remote, many people wouldn’t use them, according to a detailed authority study.

The airport advisory committee, a 28-member group that gives advice to the authority, voted in January to end considerations of the two desert sites. The vote that committee member Diane Coombs called for was unplanned and has no binding effect on the decision-making process.

Coombs, a member of Citizen Coordinate for Century 3, a smart-growth advocate, said the reasons for objecting to the desert sites were clear.

“There’s been a feeling on this advisory committee for some time,” she said, “as this information has been filtering in … if we chose either [desert] site, the voters would laugh.”

Quizzing the authority

Why eliminate Brown Field? (It’s too close to Mexican airspace and Otay Mountain.) How about keeping Lindbergh Field as an auxiliary? (They’re thinking about it.) Why not create a cross-border airport? (The Transportation Safety Administration isn’t keen.)

“Will we be successful?” he asked, shaking his right fist. “You bet we’ll be successful.”

The study on the Campo and Imperial Valley sites can be found here:

Please contact Rob Davis directly at

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