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Tuesday, March 28, 2006 | An airport authority committee zeroed in on ideas to build a commercial airport at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar on Monday, while also panning a key piece of a proposed Imperial County airport.

The San Diego County Regional Airport Authority’s strategic planning committee recommended studying how a commercial airport would look at Miramar if the Marines were relocated. Until now, the board has considered joint-use, which would have military and civilian aircraft sharing runways.

But military officials have flatly rejected the idea of sharing an airport and it remains unclear exactly how the authority would garner control of the base from the Pentagon.

The delicate wording of board member and San Diego City Councilman Tony Young’s motion, which passed 3-to-1, reflects its sensitivity. The motion was to “direct staff to research ideas whereby certain assets at Miramar would be repositioned to allow separate operation of a commercial airport.”

Translation: What would a new airport look like at Miramar if the Marines were gone?

Board members Paul G. Nieto, Paul A. Peterson and Young supported the idea; Lemon Grove Mayor Mary Teresa Sessom dissented, criticizing what she called “the march to Miramar.”

Miramar was spared in the most recent round of base closures, which concluded last year. The Pentagon penultimate round of base closures took place in 1995, and it is unknown when the Pentagon will again evaluate its bases.

The authority board is required by law to put a proposal for a new airport before voters on the November ballot. Official ballot language must be submitted to the county Registrar of Voters by Aug. 11.

Young said he wanted to make sure the board had several options to evaluate when considering Miramar for possible inclusion on the ballot.

While discussing the idea, Young said: “I believe it in my heart as an American … the question is: ‘What do the people want for their city and for their nation?’ The military … should act accordingly.”

Young echoed Nieto’s continuing frustration that the authority and the military can’t sit down and negotiate a deal that could benefit both parties.

While studying Miramar, the authority should be flexible, Young said, and look at options other than joint-use, an idea flatly rejected by the Secretary of the Navy.

“I still don’t understand,” Sessom said, in casting her vote, “what part of ‘no’ don’t we understand?”

Monday’s vote doesn’t have a binding effect. The committee recommendation will first head to the full board for a vote next Monday.

The committee also got a chance to sound off on a feasibility study examining the risks and rewards of building a possible magnetic levitation train to a proposed Imperial County airport. It didn’t get a warm welcome.

A San Diego Association of Governments study concluded that building a maglev train was feasible, but risky.

Risky, because it would cost $15 billion to $18.5 billion.

Risky, because only one maglev train exists in the world, running from Shanghai to Shanghai’s airport – and doesn’t traverse any mountains. San Diego’s would.

Risky, because no one is yet sure how much energy it would take to speed it uphill at 250 mph.

“It’s great that they have 39 miles of it that works in some Communist country,” board member William D. Lynch said. “But will it work here?”

That’s still up in the air (and the Chinese train is actually 19 miles. The 39-mile train is being studied in the Baltimore-Washington area, which is largely Communist-free.)

The authority is still awaiting its own analysis of the study to see how many area residents could use the train get to an Imperial County airport in 75 minutes, a measurement it has identified as a likely cutoff before travelers use the region’s other airports. About half of travelers would use the train as opposed to driving, according to the SANDAG study.

Nieto questioned whether the train would actually be viable and suggested describing it as “feasible” was a poor word choice.

“That’s too ambiguous,” he said. “We haven’t proven that it’s market feasible. We’re not so sure it’s economically feasible.”

Charles H. Quandel, vice president of HNTB Corp., the Chicago-based firm that conducted the study for SANDAG, contradicted earlier statements by U.S. Rep. Bob Filner, D-Chula Vista. The congressman, whose 51st district includes all of Imperial County, has said the train could travel 300 mph and could boost San Diego’s port by enabling cargo transport to Arizona.

Quandel said the train would top out at 250 mph and would not be able to carry heavy freight from the port.

The study suggests a $20 fare would cover the annual cost of operation, but doesn’t explain how to pay to construct the multi-billion dollar project. If the region could secure $10 billion in financing, it would have to make $600 million to $700 million payments yearly, Lynch said, without any apparent funding source.

“I am seriously worried about the cost of doing this,” Lynch said.

rob.davis@voiceofsandiego.org

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