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Monday, March 20, 2006 | Having attempted to convert the city of San Diego’s underused and poorly managed Brown Field municipal airport into a privately financed and managed air-cargo facility, I can share some realities with the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority, and the public, about airport development.
First, regional airports are big economic generators. Really big. All the econo-geeks agree. You pretty much can’t do anything more economically stimulating. It allows promising area businesses to become great. It attracts far more new companies than, say, a sports stadium or baseball park. It produces a tsunami of well-paid, career-type jobs, white and blue collar, union and non-union.
The whiners don’t like that story. But, don’t believe the nay-sayers – most of them already have good jobs and their special interests, not the public’s interests, are usually at the heart of the opposition.
If you want better jobs in the future and good jobs in your kids’ future, it’s hard to beat a working airport for sheer economic promise delivered.
Airports are really hard to do. Before taking on the Brown Field project in 2001, I was anecdotally told by a government guy that it was easier to invade a foreign country than to franchise a new airport. Seemed like an overstatement at the time. It wasn’t.
Airports stimulate great visionaries and public leaders, but also breed economic small mindedness and sycophantic civic cowards. You can not avoid either in this quest. So, in the end, that means that you have to really want to go forward enough to stand up the blowback that will occur.
Our prior political leaders were certainly not up to it. The airport authority will not find a little safe place where everybody likes what they do. If we do this, history will be our final judge, but there will certainly be some interim judging that will be, well, a bracing experience for the weak of will.
Where to put it? Depends on what you are trying to achieve.
As a general rule, new big regional airports are usually sited way out there. Couple of reasons for that: First, you want to be able to “grow into” the airport for about the next 100 years. Remember the first rule: Airports are very hard to do. So, do this one like you won’t be able to have a do-over for, say, 200 years.
When Dulles International was commissioned 50 years ago in 1958, they sought a 10,000-acre site. To get there, they had to cut a four-lane freeway over 40 miles into thick forest. I first landed there many decades ago and rode into D.C. for 60 minutes through forest you could not see through. You also did not see a car, or truck, a yak, or anything.
It was like landing on the moon.
Today, every foot of that forsaken highway is packed with great corporate and commercial buildings populated by well-paid folks that live in nearby residential areas. You see, you need the open space to fill in over time that generates the jobs, growth and wealth of the area. And, the growth comes. Dulles did 2.5 million passengers in 1975. It’s up to 40 million-plus now. In full build-out, it will do 55 million annual passengers (over 150,000 people per day and mega-tons of cargo).
How about Denver International in Colorado? It opened in 1995, about 40 miles from downtown Denver, in what was then the middle of the boonies. (Note, it’s geographically a bit easier to site airports in places that with land all the way around the center of the city. That’s not the case here: we can’t go west because it is inconveniently filled with salt water; can’t go south due to a foreign flag; can’t go north because people got there first and now everybody lives there; so, the only two real options are east, or in the middle of the city.)
Denver pitched its airport tent on 53 square miles of property. Yikes! That’s five times as large as Manhattan! They now have six runways and did 42.4 million passengers with in year 10 of its existence. It’s a big dog.
There is no question The San Diego Union-Tribune supports the airport moving from Lindberg to Miramar, even if the Marines do not think that such a good idea.
You probably have observed that nobody builds a new regional airport in the middle of an established cityscape, for a couple of good reasons. One, because it is threatening to immediate neighbors (NIMBY’s don’t just live here). Remember, Lindbergh Field did about 17.4 million passengers last year, or about one air operation (a landing or take off) per minute. Dulles and Denver are at about 42 million passengers (plus cargo, which we don’t have).
So if you put a major airport like Dulles or Denver at Miramar, you are talking about three or four air operations per minute over Penasquitos, Scripps Ranch, Tierrasanta, UTC and La Jolla. Busy skies forever. And two, because the new economic fizz has no where to go if all the space around the airport is already used for other things. Keep that in mind.
So, if there is an airport move in our future (?), to me the site thing comes down to Miramar, in the middle of the city (if those Marines that invested billions will give us for free the airport to which we are no-doubt entitled, but were never ready to build for ourselves); or, the Imperial Valley.
Why Imperial Valley? Because they have a jillion acres of land, routine good-operations weather, a limited economy, which would benefit greatly from a regional airport, the ability to operate at all times every day – not an option even at Miramar.
And finally, they really want it! Oh, and for us they also have water, which we need desperately and which they might be willing to deal on if we can help them find a real job producer like an airport for their children who cannot today look forward to an economic future as is available here.
And one of the best things that could ever happen to San Diego would be for our nearest neighbor to the east to become financially prosperous. Products, services, recreations; where do you think they would spend their money? Here, of course.
But, isn’t Imperial Valley’s 90 miles just too far away from San Diego? Yes, but Dulles’s 40 miles was too far away from Washington, D.C. 50 years ago. Denver International’s 40 miles was the moon 15 year ago. And, 10 years ago it was absurd to think folks would commute to San Diego for work from Temecula, 70 miles away. Heck, in 1945 when the legendary golf course architect, William F. Bell, envisioned the great golf courses at Torrey Pines, the City Council openly groaned about its viability because it was all of 20 something miles from downtown, and nobody would motor that far on surface streets just to play golf!
If history means anything, isn’t it likely that all the land and highways leading to and from the San Diego/Imperial Valley regional Airport complex will be filled in with communities, and companies that live off the access to that type of infrastructure. Isn’t that what economic engines are all about? Isn’t that what has happened everywhere else?
Expensive? Sure, but just the next improvement budget for Dulles Airport in Washington D.C. is greater than what we would spend here, including transportation improvements.
If 40 million travelers paid a $4.50 airport fee (what they pay now) that is $180 million each year. At 5-percent debt cost, that amount would finance $3.6 billion. Might be able to build some pretty good road and rail alternatives with that sum.
We will likely get Miramar as the “consensus” recommendation for a new airport. I admire those who are put in the positions of making these difficult decisions. But, to miss this opportunity to really make something remarkable happen here, something that could happen here; what a heartbreak. But, I’ve been there before.
Patrick Shea was the president and chief operating officer of BFAP, the city’s former partner in the public-private development of an air cargo facility at Brown Field. That project was discontinued by the council in 2001.