Tuesday, July 11, 2006| The long-running debate about building a cross-border airport terminal to connect San Diego’s passengers with Tijuana International Airport’s excess capacity got a fresh boost Monday, as an airport authority committee signaled interest in studying its feasibility.

The committee-level decision from the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority was a baby step toward a long-discussed terminal that would allow people to park in San Diego and cross into Mexico to fly out. The authority’s strategic planning committee agreed to recommend that the full authority board determine how much should be included in a feasibility study – not to specifically carry out the study. The full board will discuss it later this month.

The decision came less than five weeks after the airport authority picked Marine Corps Air Station Miramar as the best long-term home for a new, multi-runway international airport to replace Lindbergh Field. That choice, which voters will consider in November, capped a three-year long search for a solution to address projections that Lindbergh will hit capacity sometime after 2015.

Authority staff and board members were quick to caution, however, that the cross-border concept was unrelated to the exhaustive site-selection process.

While supporters said the cross-border terminal would have some benefits for Lindbergh Field’s capacity, airport officials said just the opposite. Angela Shafer-Payne, the authority’s vice president of strategic planning, said a cross-border terminal would not reduce pressures on Lindbergh. Instead, she said, it would make flying and check-in easier for an estimated 350,000 U.S. passengers who use Tijuana’s airport each year. Supporters say that could triple if a cross-border terminal is built.

Cindy Gompper-Graves, CEO of the South County Economic Development Council, said the terminal could be a relief valve as Lindbergh nears capacity. She suggested that cargo and passengers forced out of Lindbergh could use Tijuana’s airport instead.

“Will it ever take the place of the new airport site? No,” she said. “It’s not meant to do that. It’s just meant for another option.”

A cross-border terminal would be a complicated proposal both from diplomatic and security standpoints. It would require approval from dozens of agencies. Chiefly among them: the president of the United States. Airport authority board members also still have numerous unanswered questions.

But the airport has one thing that Lindbergh lacks: Unobstructed airspace. Fully loaded 747s, which airlines use on international, trans-Pacific flights, can depart from the Mexican airport.

Supporters say an economic study – estimated to cost $200,000 – would resolve many unanswered questions about the proposal: How much would it cost? Who would use it? Would San Diego passengers heading to South America fly through Tijuana or continue using Los Angeles International Airport? Would that improve Lindbergh Field’s capacity?

Gompper-Graves said that study is the near-term goal for supporters. The authority’s backing would allow applications for Federal Aviation Administration grants to examine the cross-border concept.

Real estate developer Malin Burnham, who has led efforts to create a bi-national Tijuana-San Diego bid for the 2016 Olympics, said the window is closing on the cross-border terminal. The city of San Diego is revising Otay Mesa’s community plan, a blueprint for the area’s long-term development. Burnham expressed concern that such a revision will allow residential development on several parcels around the terminal – valued at $60 million to $70 million. If homes are built on the land, the cross-border idea will be lost, Burnham said.

“When they’re gone, they’re gone,” he said, “and we’re wasting our time.”

Whitney Benzian, a spokesman for City Councilman Ben Hueso, who represents the Otay area, said Burnham may be wrong. Community plan revisions wouldn’t change zoning where the terminal has been proposed, Benzian said. Hueso likes the cross-border terminal proposal “on the surface,” the spokesman said, but wants more information about it before committing support to it.

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