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Monday, Oct. 23, 2006 | The report said Lindbergh Field wouldn’t work.

Joint use of a military base was the answer, it said. But the military wasn’t buying the idea.

Sound familiar?

This was February 1956, and a consulting firm named Leigh Fisher and Associates had released the first known study on the future of Lindbergh Field.

Lindbergh Field, it said, was not a suitable airport for the newly dawning jet age. Three sites were recommended. Among them was the joint-use of a military base, Naval Air Station North Island. Navy officials were resistant.

How little has changed in 50 years.

For half a century, study after study has predicted the day when Lindbergh Field would reach capacity. In 1961, projections showed Lindbergh hitting capacity in 1980. But by 1981, the date had been pushed back to 1995. That 1981 report pointed to Miramar as the best option for a commercial airport. By 1990, studies showed Lindbergh working until 2010.

Now, the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority says Lindbergh will start having problems between 2015 and 2022, and it is asking voters on Nov. 7 to allow them to push for space at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar to build a new international airport. The authority says the airport’s sole runway will become constrained as flights increase, and say expanding Lindbergh Field is not a practical option. Once that happens, they say ticket prices, delays and congestion will increase.

For all the talk about economic losses, cramped planes, military objections, congressional resistance and longer-ticket lines, the decades-long debate about the future of Lindbergh Field boils down to this: Are they crying wolf again? Or is the wolf here?

Those questions – asked again and again over the life of 661-acre Lindbergh Field – give ample ammunition to both Miramar supporters and opponents, while illustrating the political difficulties of answering San Diego’s airport question.

Supporters say Lindbergh’s sole runway is the fundamental limiting factor at the airport. Supporters point to the decades of continued study as a deeply rooted acknowledgment that Lindbergh Field isn’t a suitable site for the region’s international airport.

“If you stand back from it – I don’t care whether its 10 years, 15 years, 50 years or 80 years – we need an airport for the next 100 years,” says William D. Lynch, an authority board member who supports the Miramar proposal. Evoking that tale of the boy who cried wolf, he says: “Remember how the story ended?”

Opponents acknowledge that Lindbergh may eventually have problems, but say it is working well now, pointing out that the number of planes landing at Lindbergh has actually remained steady over the last decade – even as passenger figures have grown. Opponents say Lindbergh hasn’t been maximized – pointing to the 13,000 private jets and small planes that landed there last year – and say the airport authority has manufactured an illusory crisis.

U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-El Cajon, seized on those themes at a Thursday press conference, where the region’s five congressional representatives rallied against the Miramar ballot measure.

“The people that have pushed Miramar 10 years ago had studies that said today Lindbergh would be unworkable,” he said. “But is Lindbergh unworkable today? The answer is no.”

And that is part of the challenge for the supporters of the ballot measure. They must convince voters that their projections about future demand are accurate – at a time when passenger satisfaction is relatively high. The authority has spent the last three years – and nearly $3.8 million – spreading that message.

This has been a contentious part of the debate. Richard Carson, an economics professor at the University of California, San Diego, has questioned the authority’s projections, saying it overestimated passenger demand, which has been rebounding after a post-Sept. 11 dip. While the authority’s brochures and public campaigns point to the 17.4 million passengers who flew from Lindbergh in 2005 – which was up 1 million from 2004 – Carson points to the number of actual flights from Lindbergh, which has not seen any marked increase in the last 15 years. Passenger totals are projected to finish up about one percent in 2006.

That number Carson highlights – 220,000 flights in 2005 – was about equal to Lindbergh’s load in 1994. That is largely attributable to an airline industry trend of packing planes tighter since World War II. But Carson says Lindbergh still has room to maximize its flights in and out. He says a small extension of Palomar-McClellan Airport’s runway in Carlsbad could be a relief valve.

The authority says the airport can handle 24 million passengers a year, or about 280,000 flights. It is currently developing an expansion of Lindbergh’s terminal facilities to accommodate growth through 2020. While it has studied building a V-shaped runway through the Marine Corps Recruit Depot that would boost capacity by 15 to 20 percent, it would impact thousands of additional residents with noise.

Small tweaks – such as moving general aviation and cargo flights out of Lindbergh Field – won’t buy much time, said Michael Hix, senior transportation planner at the San Diego Association of Governments, who has previously worked on airport studies.

“It might buy you some small period of time, but that’s not the real solution,” he said.

So who is right? Logically speaking, Lindbergh will undoubtedly hit capacity sometime. But that could be said of every other major airport in the country – as the United States’ population moves from 300 million to 400 million and beyond, all airports will eventually reach capacity. The question facing Lindbergh is whether it will happen according to the authority’s projections. Does action need to be taken now? Is the wolf here?

Craig McIntosh, an assistant economics professor at UCSD, says those questions are difficult to answer.

“This is a case where well-intentioned, smart people can come at it with different information and come to different conclusions,” McIntosh says. “That uncertainty is fundamental. At a certain point, the city just has to suck it up and make a decision, knowing they may be wrong.”

Fifty years ago, joint-use of a military base was on the table, and the military reacted negatively. Today, the same idea is back, again. Abe Shragge, director of UCSD’s Dimensions of Culture Program, says San Diego’s history is full of similar recurring questions. In the 1920s, the city knew it needed to tap into the Colorado River as its local water supply. But it struggled to act.

“San Diego has historically had a hard time getting down to brass tacks to deal with hard issues,” Shragge says. “This, in many ways, sounds like a related version of an old story. We know we have these problems, there are decisions that have to be made, actions that have to be taken.

“These problems can be solved, but this is our heritage.”

Tuesday: Marines insist they cannot make room for an international airport. But others question their sincerity. Could the Marines give up their base, move elsewhere and still successfully train aviators?

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

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