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Tuesday, May 23, 2006 | An airport authority committee chose Marine Corps Air Station Miramar as the best site for a new international airport to replace Lindbergh Field, putting the authority one step away from finalizing the proposal voters will see in November.
The final say belongs to the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority’s full nine-member board, which will settle the issue at its June 5 meeting. Their decision, spurred by projections that show the city’s existing airport will reach its capacity sometime after 2015, will culminate the three-year process that the authority was created to bring to fruition.
The heralded solution to San Diego’s project air capacity crunch is by no means assured. The Pentagon has vehemently objected to sharing land at the base, and a 1996 federal law prohibits commercial aircraft from using it. And to date, none of San Diego’s congressional representatives have shown any support for a commercial airport at Miramar. The uncertainty surrounding the base is reflected in the draft language the committee recommended for the November ballot initiative.
It became clear Monday that Miramar may never house a joint-use commercial airport, even if voters approve the move Nov. 7.
As it is worded now, the draft ballot language – which has a 75-word limit – asks voters: “Shall San Diego County government officials make every effort to persuade Congress and the military to make available, by 2020, approximately 3,000 acres … at MCAS Miramar for a commercial airport.”
Major questions remain as the language goes to the full board. What county government officials would be responsible for the persuading? How will “every effort” be defined in practice? Will the 3,000 acres those officials pursue be the land extensively studied by the authority’s consultants? And just what happens if the military and Congress continue to resist long after Election Day?
The draft language – board members said they expect to tweak it in two weeks – includes several caveats:
– That the process of securing a chunk of Miramar for a commercial airport will maintain the military’s readiness and safety and that the military would not bear the costs of relocating or modifying its operations.
– That necessary traffic and transportation improvements are made.
– That no local tax dollars are used on the airport.
The 3-1 approval capped off a contentious meeting in a contentious process, where board members openly criticized each other’s reasoning. But then there was the Navy, the Marine Corps and board member Tony Young.
Officials from both branches rehashed their objections to sharing their bases with commercial aircraft. Between the two – Capt. Mike Allen, chief of staff at Navy Region Southwest, and Lt. Col. Duane Pinney, Miramar’s safety director – the words “unacceptable” or “unacceptably” were used 17 times.
That prompted Young, who also serves on San Diego’s City Council, to chide a lack of cooperation, saying the military needed to be “more open and honest.”
“What I heard was a presentation of what can’t be done,” Young said. “We’re looking for a solution here in San Diego. We’re growing up. We’re not the military-only town we used to be. I didn’t hear any recommendations of what you could do as the military.”
Pinney, in response: “We’re not paid to support the board.”
Once the bickering was aside, a majority of the committee recommended the elimination of all other remaining sites: Boulevard, Imperial County, Borrego Springs, March Air Reserve Base, Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Naval Air Station North Island and Lindbergh Field. They then pointed to Miramar as the only viable option.
“How can you ignore it?” asked board member Paul A. Peterson, who introduced the ballot language. “It is ideally suited to serve the entire San Diego County region.”
Miramar is considered to be the center of the county’s population base. An in-depth analysis the authority released last week further pointed to it as a viable solution. Beyond that, Peterson said, a Miramar airport would free up Lindbergh Field “for other uses that will even further spur the San Diego economy by providing further opportunities.”
No plan is in place, however, to redevelop Lindbergh Field if voters approve a move to Miramar. Its lease would revert to the Unified Port District of San Diego, which ran the airport before the authority’s creation in January 2003.
Board members Paul G. Nieto and Lynch both said the recommendation of Miramar provides an opportunity for a dialogue about an eventual move to the base.
Lynch said he did not want to see the Marine Corps leave Miramar. But he also wondered whether their departure would negatively impact the region’s economy.
Sessom, who cast the committee’s lone dissenting vote, said the site-selection process had failed to maximize current capacity at Lindbergh Field. That failure, she cautioned, could leave the region in a “world of hurt” if voters reject Miramar.
“Nothing is different than 1994,” she said, referring to the last time an advisory vote was taken (and approved) on Miramar. “Except now I feel we’re just passing this along to the next generation.”
The authority committee also reviewed an updated economic analysis that projects the region could gain between $44 billion and $130 billion in gross regional product between now and 2035 if Lindbergh Field’s sole runway is replaced and capacity constraints are eliminated.
It’s a sizeable increase from the high of $94 billion that had been projected in a previous analysis completed in 2001. The report, however, cautions that the two reports aren’t directly comparable for several reasons: They examine different timeframes, different air travel forecasts and a shift in the way air cargo is handled.