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Thursday, April 13, 2006 | Two airport authority members say if voters approve a military site to replace Lindbergh Field, they expect Congress to respond to the public and overcome the Pentagon’s objections to sharing its land.

Several local Congressmen disagree. One said it’s “politically very naïve.” A spokesman for another dubbed the assertion “delusional.”

If one of the three bases under consideration lands on the November ballot and voters approve it, some remain skeptical it will resolve an issue the region has been trying to address for decades.

San Diego County Regional Airport Authority board members Paul G. Nieto and William D. Lynch think military land can solve the region’s airport needs. Both have said they believe Congress should follow the public’s lead after Election Day.

“If, after completing its analysis of all possible options, the airport authority recommends a military site that is approved by the voters,” Nieto wrote in a recent The San Diego Union-Tribune editorial, “it will then become the responsibility of our political leaders to provide the strong cohesive leadership necessary to implement the will of the people.”

The will of the people. It’s an increasingly repeated refrain at meetings. But a bipartisan group of local congressmen – U.S. Reps. Duncan Hunter, Darrell Issa and Bob Filner – say they oppose the joint-use of a military base for San Diego’s next international airport. They are a majority of the county’s five-member congressional delegation.

The issue hardly reared its head in the 50th district primary race to replace former U.S. Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, which concluded Tuesday. The crowded field of 18, vying to represent Miramar and the neighborhoods surrounding it, largely agreed that military bases shouldn’t be targeted.

“The idea that a non-binding ballot initiative is going to change the minds of the congressional delegation doesn’t construe with reality,” said Frederick Hill, a spokesman for Issa, a Vista republican.

As the authority draws closer to its self-imposed May deadline to address the region’s future airport needs, the likelihood of a military base being selected as a site for a new airport has increased. Some board members view two desert sites under consideration as too expensive and too far away. Sites at Borrego Springs and March Air Force Base in Riverside County aren’t being studied in-depth. And once ruled out, the authority has only recently revisited the idea of staying at Lindbergh.

That leaves the military bases. But two issues stand in the way. Federal law explicitly prohibits commercial use of Miramar, which many observers project as the odds-on favorite. If it is selected and approved, Congress would have to address the prohibition.

Congress would also have to step in if the Pentagon continues objecting to shared-use of its bases. Military officials from the secretary of the Navy down to San Diego’s Navy mayor have repeatedly said the bases aren’t available.

“I think it would be unlikely – if the local delegation is united in opposition – for Congress to do anything about it,” said Gary Jacobson, a professor of political science at University of California, San Diego.

Steve Erie, another UCSD political science professor, said getting control of a military base starts with Mayor Jerry Sanders, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors and local congressional delegates. Erie supports putting a new airport at Miramar, but thinks the area has squandered its chances.

“You need to have a united front, particularly a congressional delegation,” Erie said. “We don’t have that, so we’re not going to get it.”

U.S. Rep. Bob Filner, D-Chula Vista, has lobbied to put a new airport in Imperial County, which his 51st district represents. Despite the $15 billion to $25 billion cost of building a magnetic levitation train to access the site, he said, it is the only place that would welcome a new airport and the related economic development. Filner has criticized the authority for not giving Imperial County the look he thinks it deserves.

“They are politically very naïve,” Filner said. “They act as if there’s not going to be a fight against that ballot initiative. You’ve got the combination of those who don’t want to close Lindbergh added to the communities who don’t want it at Miramar. … They don’t understand the politics of this thing, and they don’t understand how foolish they’re going to look.”

The only local congressional representative remaining neutral is Rep. Susan A. Davis, D-San Diego.

“Things change and positions change,” said Aaron Hunter, Davis’s spokesman. “It’s just very difficult to speculate what could happen. … There’s always going to be opposition. It’s just who has the upper hand politically and legislatively. There’s just so many factors involved.”

Davis hasn’t steered clear of the process, though. After she inquired about the Navy’s stance on joint use, the Pentagon ended all speculation about its position, formally spelling out its objections.

Not all authority board members endorse the idea of relying on the federal government. Xema Jacobson, who has opposed joint use of military bases, said turning to Congress won’t resolve the issue.

“I was sworn into office to be responsible as a commissioner for the airport authority,” Jacobson said. “And by saying ‘OK, it’s up to Congress,’ I’m taking our responsibility and handing it off to someone else. And I don’t think that’s what we were sworn to do when we came into office.”

rob.davis@voiceofsandiego.org

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