Tuesday, June 13, 2006 | Last Wednesday, the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority was still planning to churn out one last study on the airport site-selection process.

By Monday, it wasn’t. The authority’s legal counsel had advised against the necessity of the study, which would have preceded a formal report detailing the environmental impacts of a new international airport at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar.

The interpretation means the authority does not think detailed environmental studies – required by state law – are yet necessary. Because, while the authority’s ballot recommendation points to Miramar as the best place for a new international airport, the project isn’t a sure thing. The military has rejected an airport on its land. The local congressional delegation has not supported the proposal. And voters, who will weigh in on Nov. 7, haven’t had their say.

The decision to forego the study concluded the authority’s extensive technical analysis, while providing insight into the legal nuances of the ballot language as well as the unanticipated amorphousness of the authority’s final decision.

Three years ago, the authority had planned for that decision to trigger the environmental review process required by California law. But it didn’t. The reason lies in the ballot language’s finer points.

While the authority agreed June 5 on Miramar, it didn’t specifically recommend where that airport should be located on the Marine base. The ballot language, in part, asks: Shall the Airport Authority and government officials work to obtain approximately 3,000 of 23,000 acres at MCAS Miramar?

It doesn’t say which 3,000 acres. Angela Shafer-Payne, the authority’s vice president of strategic planning, said a Miramar airport wouldn’t necessarily be put on the 3,000 acres that consultants have extensively studied. The wording is designed to give the authority more flexibility to negotiate with the military.

It is just one subtlety of a ballot measure with five provisions – and several unanswered questions.

The ballot measure, which goes before voters in November, is the result of a three-year process that was intended to solve San Diego’s predicted air capacity crunch once and for all.

The ballot language says all necessary traffic and freeway improvements will be completed. The authority has identified $830 million in road projects. They include the widening of Miramar Road into a six- or eight-lane freeway and the shift of a five-mile stretch of Interstate 15 inland to accommodate a new runway.

Authority officials can’t say how they will pay for those new roads. The ballot measure says no local taxes will be used on the airport. The authority will pay for it with some federal funding and with an increase in fees and rents charged to airlines. But the authority is prohibited by federal law from using that money to pay for road projects that don’t exclusively serve the airport.

Mike Hix, the San Diego Association of Governments’ principal transportation planner, said it’s still too early to determine how the road projects would be funded.

“You bring up a real good question,” Hix said. “I think all the regional heads have to sit together and say here’s what we can pay for and what we can’t pay for.”

Another unanswered question: The ballot language promises to ensure “overall noise impacts are reduced.” But it doesn’t say how. The authority’s Miramar proposal projects 10,765 homes would fall into a 65-decibel noise contour if a joint-use airport is built there – primarily because of F-18 training at the base.

Beyond 65 decibels, the Federal Aviation Administration’s noise threshold, studies show continual exposure to such noise poses a health risk. If 10,765 homes were affected, it would exceed a criterion was used to exclude other potential airport sites from consideration.

While the authority’s report projects fewer than 10 people would be impacted by noise if the Marines moved their F-18 fighter jets from the base, the ballot language doesn’t guarantee a commercial airport would impact that low number.

“I don’t think we could say it’s a guarantee because it says ‘Overall noise impacts are reduced,’” Shafer-Payne said. “It doesn’t specifically say how those are reduced.”

The authority cannot say who “overall noise impacts” refers to, Shafer-Payne said.

“(Authority) staff has not had a chance to sit with our attorneys and talk about what all of this would mean,” she said.

The ballot language also promises to complete necessary Lindbergh Field improvements. What are they? This is also somewhat uncertain.

Improvements start with the airport’s $500 million master plan, Shafer-Payne said, which is under development. That includes a 10-gate expansion of Terminal 2, with a new parking structure.

“Certainly, as we move forward, the board may give other direction,” Shafer-Payne said, noting that a second runway at Lindbergh Field would not be possible. “We would continue to look and focus on land-side improvements or things that would improve the efficiency.”

Please contact Rob Davis directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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