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Friday, June 23, 2006 | You don’t want to close Lindbergh Field and move the region’s international airport to Miramar? That’s fine, proponents of a new airport say, but you’ll be responsible for causing the region’s economy to forego $130 billion – with a B.

Doom.

You want to move the airport to Marine Corps Air Station Miramar? That’s great, some opponents say, but you’ll have to shoulder the blame when the Marines leave not only San Diego, but California altogether.

Gloom.

In the debate about the future of Lindbergh Field – which voters will weigh in on Nov. 7 – the growing rhetoric surrounding the airport ballot measure has focused on many issues: noise, environmental impacts, military readiness. But through the dense forest of points and counterpoints, the two sides’ arguments have intersected at one common topic: Money.

As Election Day draws closer, a focus on finances gives airport proponents and opponents a battle cry with appeal that stretches beyond self-interested locals such as Point Lomans, who want nearby Lindbergh Field to move, and Tierrasantans, who want to keep the new airport out of their back yard.

It won’t be the only argument the two sides present to voters. But if you need proof that economics is causing conflict in the airport debate, look no further than the business community. A year ago, the community fought to preserve San Diego’s military bases during a round of Pentagon base closures. Now that same community is weighing whether to support a ballot proposal that would require the Marines to modify or move their mission at Miramar – over the military’s objections.

And both sides of the debate predict scary scenarios if their side doesn’t prevail in November.

The San Diego County Regional Airport Authority chose Miramar earlier this month as the best place to build a new international airport to replace Lindbergh Field. The decision culminated the authority’s three-year search for a solution to address projections that Lindbergh would reach its capacity between 2015 and 2022.

During that three-year process, the authority frequently relied on an economic argument to make its case for the search. Authority officials pointed to a 2001 economic impact study that projected Lindbergh Field exceeding its capacity would cause the region to lose between $30 billion and $94 billion by 2030.

Minutes before an authority committee picked Miramar, the authority’s board members got an update on the economic impacts of staying put. This time, the losses ranged as high as $130 billion.

Opponents have questioned those figures. Invoking the name of Richard Carson, economics department chairman at University of California, San Diego, is common among Miramar opponents. They frequently cite his analysis, which rejected the authority’s economic impact study. Carson, who spoke somewhat diplomatically of the authority in March, has slowly joined the chorus of authority critics.

“The only conclusion that a reasonable outside observer of this process can draw is that [authority] staff is not interested in a seriously objective analysis of the economic impacts,” Carson wrote in a late May letter to authority Chairman Joe Craver.

As the airport authority has advertised dire financial projections, its board members have questioned the value of the military presence at Miramar. The base estimated its impact to the region’s economy last year at $488 million. It is a small piece of the military’s economic engine in San Diego, where the defense business ranks as second largest industry. The San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce estimates the region took in $13.4 billion in Defense Department contracts, salaries and benefits in 2003. Including indirect impacts increases that figure to $23 billion.

As the military has responded to the authority’s search, its leaders have increasingly used a subtle threat: This process could damage San Diego’s long history as a military town. Maj. Gen. Michael Lehnert, commander of Marine Corps Installations West, invoked that argument two weeks ago.

Standing in a dark room at Miramar’s officers club, with helicopters buzzing outside, Lehnert said he was concerned about the debate’s rancor.

“It may affect a civilian-military relationship,” he said, “that has been going on a long, long time.”

The unstated message in that: Don’t force us out. We’re worth a lot to the region.

John Chalker, president of the Alliance in Support of Airport Progress in the 21st Century, a pro-new airport group, says he doesn’t see a civilian-versus-military economics issue.

“Because I think that if reasonable people sat down,” he said, “you could craft a solution that would meet the needs of the air transportation demand – and minimize any negative impacts to the Marines.”

As the focus has turned to economics, it has turned away from noise.

The airport authority has deftly addressed arguments about noise. The shared use of airspace at Miramar would force some fighter pilot training to a new southern runway to avoid commercial aircraft. Because of the hard left turns the pilots execute – they imitate the way they land on aircraft carriers – they’d be forced to fly over Tierrasanta, Kearny Mesa and Clairemont Mesa.

The resulting noise would impact 10,765 homes – exceeding the threshold of a criteria used to exclude other sites from consideration.

When that information was released a month ago, the airport authority’s technical consultants said the Miramar joint-use concept was technically feasible. They admitted that no joint-use operation in the country is as challenging, but said it would work. The concept would build two new runways and a terminal to the south of Miramar’s existing runways. It led the airport authority board to choose Miramar as the best home for a new international airport.

At an airport breakfast forum on Thursday sponsored by Citizens Coordinate for Century 3, Angela Shafer-Payne, the authority’s vice president of strategic planning, said the authority “absolutely recognizes that joint-use doesn’t work.” She acknowledged that the concept, which would move F-18s to a new southern runway, would impact too many homes with noise, she said.

But if those planes move, she said, the authority wants to be a part of the military’s planning process.

“What we do know and do believe,” she said, “is that things change.”

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

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