Saturday, March 18, 2006 | A study released Friday says about half of air passengers traveling between San Diego and a proposed Imperial County airport would use a magnetic levitation train.

Each day, almost 50,000 people would be whisked along an approximately 90-mile long high-speed train route between the two sites, according to the study by the San Diego Association of Governments.

If the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority selects an Imperial Desert site for a new airport, and if voters approve it, an expensive maglev train would be a key part of the proposal.

But until now, the authority hasn’t known how many people would ride the train. That question was answered Friday, but the answer’s implications are still unclear. Angela Shafer-Payne, the authority’s vice president of strategic planning, said the ridership figure was the most important piece of

The study was clearly still being absorbed Friday. Shafer-Payne said it would take until April for ridership figures to be extrapolated to show how many local residents could arrive in the desert in 50 minutes; how many in 75 minutes and so on. The airport’s initial estimate showed a majority of travelers would get to the airport in 75 minutes – but they had assumed only 25 percent would use the train.

Travel time will be a vital part of evaluating the Imperial Valley site, authority board member Paul Nieto said. As travel time increases, the number of passengers willing to use a desert airport drops. Orange County and Long Beach airports then become more appealing options, Nieto said.

“Can we get people to spend an extra hour in travel time and be charged more and use the service as much as they do now – and can our airlines make money at that?” Nieto wondered.

It is a lofty idea. Only one other maglev train exists, on a 19-mile stretch in Shanghai. An earlier estimate by the authority projected a maglev train to cost between $8 billion and $10 billion.

But the study projected much higher costs, ranging between $15 billion and $18.5 billion, with one route as high as $25 billion. By comparison, Denver built a new five-runway airport in 1995 for $5 billion. At that rate, you could buy five airports and 25 runways for the price of one maglev.

U.S. Rep. Bob Filner, D-Chula Vista, who secured $800,000 in federal funding for the study, was enthusiastic about the results.

“I think the estimates are way too high, but that’s not the issue at this point,” Filner said. “The issue is whether it’s technically and financially viable – and it is.”

Filner, whose district includes Chula Vista and all of Imperial County, has been a vocal supporter of putting an airport there, saying it is the only proposed site where residents actual support an airport in their backyard.

“I don’t think [authority members] have another choice,” Filner said. “They need to seriously look at this and figure out how to make it work.”

The study details five proposed routes for the train, including three stations in San Diego: Miramar, Qualcomm Stadium and the Santa Fe Depot downtown. Two proposed routes would follow the Interstate 8 corridor, another would follow Highway 94. A fourth would use a deep tunnel system to run in a straight line from San Diego to the airport. A fifth would follow the San Diego & Arizona Eastern railway corridor and dip into Mexico for 28.5 miles.

Environmental impacts could be a major hurdle. Mitigation costs range between $23 million and $1.1 billion, depending on the route.

The study identifies a range of funding sources, but doesn’t delve into just how the multi-billion project would impact taxpayers. It does suggest benefits of using some type of private funding for the project.

SANDAG will address the study at a Tuesday briefing.

Please contact Rob Davis directly at

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