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The San Diego County Regional Airport Authority is pleased to see your innovative online publication covering the San Diego region’s airport site selection process. However, it is important for the region to understand the full picture when considering the opinion piece by San Diego County Taxpayers Association Treasurer Harvey Goodfriend in your April 11 edition.
Mr. Goodfriend gave the airport authority low marks for several elements of its Airport Site Selection Program. In fact, the program has been successful in involving residents throughout the San Diego region in a robust dialogue about what kind of air transportation system we want to leave our children and future generations. The program has won national and local awards for the quality, openness and inclusiveness of its public outreach efforts.
Much as the voiceofsandiego.org presents journalism with a fresh new, online-only approach, the airport authority has also sought new, balanced and innovative ways, along with more traditional approaches, to engage the public in this important issue. Our efforts have included:
- Online dialogues involving hundreds of regional residents
- Community town hall meetings throughout the county
- An interactive Web site at www.san.org/siteselection
- A series of aviation education forums
- Public meetings of the airport authority board
- A Public Working Group composed of diverse stakeholders whose meetings are open to the public
- Informational print and video materials
- Public outreach at street fairs and other community gatherings county-wide
Regarding the six “principles” for which Goodfriend offered low marks, it will ultimately be up to county voters to decide how effective the airport authority has been in these areas. But there is another side to the story.
Principle 1: Maximize Use of All Existing Airports
A multi-airport solution – using San Diego International Airport (SDIA) in concert with a supplemental airport – has indeed been given serious consideration by the airport authority. This idea was discussed, debated and explored by the Public Working Group as well as by airport authority staff, consultants and the airport authority board. However, after considerable analysis, discussion and debate, the board voted not to pursue the concept of a supplemental site in North County.
Why is this concept viewed as unworkable for the San Diego region? Unlike Washington, D.C., Chicago and New York, San Diego is not an air transportation hub. We are an origin-and-destination market, with very few connecting flights – and the additional air service they might generate. Also, costs for airlines to use a new supplemental airport would be steeper than using Lindbergh Field because of the debt required to build it. Why then would airlines be motivated to serve the new facility? Forcing airlines to a new facility is difficult, if not impossible, as exhibited by the failed experience at Montreal’s old Mirabel Airport after that city’s new airport was built.
Principle 2: Optimize Lindbergh Field
The airport authority and others before it have looked at numerous ways the current airport could be expanded and reconfigured to satisfy increased demand. But geography – steeply rising terrain on approach and takeoff – works against SDIA. Studies make it abundantly clear that adding a non-parallel runway (the “open V”) would only increase SDIA’s capacity by some 15 percent 20 percent. So while it might increase airport capacity in the short term, it would be at great cost – $1.5 billion to $2 billion – and buy us only a few additional years. Is that a wise investment?
The state law creating the airport authority says a viable long-term solution will need to serve some 35 million airline passengers a year. An airport solution designed to accommodate that number would likely serve our region for 100 years or more. That is the kind of long-range planning to which communities interested in long-term viability commit themselves.
Our region will grow regardless of what we do about the airport – the question is, will it grow stronger? We must also ask: Is it fair to leave this issue for future generations to solve? We should take responsibility and seize the chance to solve this problem for the long-term…now. After all, that is one of the chief reasons state law created the airport authority in the first place.
The airport authority has studied how to optimize Lindbergh Field to the fullest extent possible, by adding a second parallel runway that would allow simultaneous landings and takeoffs and indeed meet the region’s long-term needs. During the summer of 2005, six dual runway scenarios were evaluated, and one of these, known as
“Concept 6,” was moved forward into analysis by the board. The analysis revealed something equally unimaginable: Concept 6 would have displaced nearly 18,000 residents and wiped out large business and residential sections of the city’s historic Point Loma area. The board voted not to move the concept forward.
Principle 3: Disclose External Infrastructure Costs
The airport authority has studied and disclosed the external infrastructure costs for transportation improvements that would be needed for passengers to reach the two civilian sites undergoing detailed analysis. Last December, a study presented to the board reported that a maglev train line, highway improvements and water and fuel lines could add some $10.3 billion to the cost of an airport in Boulevard and some $13.2 billion to the cost of an airport in the Imperial County desert. This was covered in a lengthy article in The San Diego Union-Tribune on Dec. 13.
Similar calculations are now being done for the three military sites undergoing further analysis. These numbers will be presented publicly and to the airport authority board by the end of May.
Principle 4: Provide Voters with Airport Financing Plan
Comprehensive financial feasibility plans are being developed for all five sites undergoing detailed analysis (two civilian and three military) and will be made public by the end of May. These plans will detail the financial implications mentioned by Mr. Goodfriend, including how construction of an airport at each site would be financed and the projected costs to passengers and the airlines. We agree this is key information for voters to know. Cost and financing are important considerations as the airport authority board evaluates the choices before it.
Mr. Goodfriend stated, “what’s not being said so far, at least not very loudly, is that it will be those who use the airport who will pay for the cost of any move.” Maybe it is not being said very loudly…because it is not entirely true.
In this country, construction of new airport infrastructure is funded through a variety of sources, the biggest one being airport revenue bonds. The revenue bonds are backed and paid by funds generated on the airport by concessions, parking revenues, landing fees, etc. History shows that airport revenue bonds funded some 75 percent of the cost of building Denver International Airport and approximately 87 percent of the cost of building Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. Other funding sources include the Federal Aviation Administration’s Airport Improvement Program and passenger facility charges.
No local tax dollars are used for actual airport construction, although some of the ground transportation infrastructure required to support a new airport – like access roads, exit ramps, a new highway or a high-speed rail line – would be paid for by a combination of federal, state and local transportation funding programs.
What Mr. Goodfriend fails to disclose is that the cost to passengers will go up even more if the region is stuck with a highly constrained airport facility. Since airline fares are market-based, airlines often charge more where air service is at a premium – namely, at airports where passenger demand exceeds seat capacity. One only needs to look north to John Wayne International Airport in Orange County, which operates under a legal cap of 10.8 million annual passengers. Far more passengers would like to use that airport, but legally it can’t accommodate them. The result? It is one of the most expensive major airports in California to fly into or out of.
So, while some fees may increase to help pay for a long-term airport solution, they will not compare with the higher airfares passengers would face in the long run by staying at a constrained facility.
Principle 5: The Viability of Joint Use
State law requires the airport authority to study “use of current military installations that may become available for civilian or mix-use…to address future airport needs.” The airport authority takes this responsibility seriously and owes the region a thorough analysis of whether or not joint use could work at any of the three military sites undergoing further analysis – North Island, Miramar and Pendleton.
Military representatives have been part of the Public Working Group since day one, and the airport authority board has often stated its solid support of the military’s vital role in both national defense and the regional economy.
The time has come to provide an answer this region has long deserved: what is the best long-term air transportation for the San Diego region, and does it involve a military site or not? We look forward to continuing our work with the military as we analyze the feasibility of joint use. This analysis is nearly complete, and the results will be released publicly by mid-May.
Principle 6: Economic Impact Study
The 2001 economic impact study for the SDIA is currently being updated and will be released publicly in the coming weeks. However, the 2001 study reinforced what most economists already know about major airports in any community: they generate impressive economic activity which benefits the surrounding region. The 2001 study showed that tiny, constrained Lindbergh Field contributes some $4.5 billion annually to the regional economy, with every job at the airport supporting some 15 other jobs off the airport.
All the aforementioned principles have been important parts of the airport authority’s ongoing commitment to address the San Diego region’s long-term air transportation needs. And they will continue to play an integral role as the airport authority board arrives at a long-term solution to place before county voters in November 2006.
Thella F. Bowens is president and CEO of the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority.