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Wednesday, March 22, 2006 | U.S. Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., insisted that he didn’t come to San Diego to meddle in the debate over the future of Lindbergh Field.
Instead, Mica said, he was here to listen.
And he indeed got an earful during a roundtable discussion Tuesday with local ranking military officials, airport officials and business leaders. Despite exposing the region’s obvious divisions during the two-and-a-half-hour talk, Mica urged local leaders to work together to solve San Diego’s expected airport capacity crunch.
Mica, chairman of the House subcommittee on aviation, also cast doubt on the viability or need for a magnetic-levitation train between San Diego and a proposed Imperial County site.
U.S. Rep. Bob Filner, D-Chula Vista, who spoke at the morning roundtable at the San Diego Convention Center, continued advocating for building an airport in Imperial County, which his district encompasses. Though the airport would be 100 miles away from downtown San Diego, he said a maglev train – which could cost $15 billion to $25 billion – could cover the distance in as little as 20 minutes.
But Mica was clearly skeptical of the idea. He said he’d be a “strong advocate” for first building such a train along a well-traveled corridor between Washington, D.C. and Boston. Only one such train is currently operating in the world, along a 19-mile stretch in Shanghai. Getting the federal government to fund 50 percent of the maglev’s cost would be “doing well,” Mica said, meaning a train would likely need dramatic subsidies from other sources.
The costs of the train couldn’t be covered through the increased airport fees that would help build the airport itself and would need to come from other government sources.
Mica’s outlook on building the United States’ first maglev train on a route between San Diego and an isolated airport in Imperial County, which has a population roughly the size of Oceanside: “Right now, I term that difficult.”
While Mica said he was there to listen, Filner was vocal. He chastised the airport authority members present – Paul Nieto, Xema Jacobson and Chairman Joe Craver – for not fairly considering a viable Imperial County site.
“They selected a site that had tremendous environmental issues,” Filner said. “I don’t know where it came from, except thin air.”
Filner went back-and-forth with Nieto, who has been skeptical of building an airport in the desert. Nieto challenged Filner’s assertion that a maglev train could travel 300 mph, calling it a “theoretical speed,” and said all airport sites need to be studied to see how long it might take for passengers to access them. Nieto has expressed concern that as travel time increases, the number of passengers willing to use a desert airport decreases.
“Is it reasonable for us as a board to expect to have our customers pay more for poorer service and expect the airlines to buy in?” Nieto asked Filner.
Filner countered, saying a train could solve other issues. It would allow the San Diego housing market to expand into Imperial County while boosting San Diego’s port by enabling it to feed cargo to Phoenix.
Nieto and Filner weren’t the only ones at the meeting with contrasting views. The high-ranking military officials who spoke continued their opposition to the shared use of local military bases with commercial aircraft.
A joint commercial-military airport “strikes at the heart of our ability to train our Marines for war,” said Maj. Gen. Michael R. Lehnert, the commanding general of Marine Corps Installations West.
Previous rounds of military base closures have validated the importance of San Diego’s bases, said Rear Adm. Len Hering, commander of Navy Region Southwest.
“These bases, ranges and airfields serve a higher calling,” Hering told Mica.
As the meeting wound down, Mica wished local leaders well in their quest to find a new airport site and garner voter approval.
“I can’t influence the decision here other than to ask you to cooperate and make some decisions,” Mica said. With 428 other airports in the country to worry about, “if this one is in turmoil, I will smile at Mr. Filner and wish you well.”
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