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Friday, Feb. 2, 2007 | The San Diego County Regional Airport Authority continued inching forward Thursday in its consideration of building a cross-border airport terminal to allow passengers to access Tijuana’s airport directly from U.S. territory.

But the deeper the authority gets, the more apparent the project’s challenges become.

The airport authority agreed Thursday to spend a maximum $385,000 to study whether any demand exists for a terminal that would allow San Diego passengers to more easily access flights out of Tijuana Rodriguez International Airport, where flights serve different destinations than Lindbergh Field — including twice-weekly direct service to Japan.

The authority has taken a series of small, deliberate steps toward the cross-border concept since the years-old idea first reawakened last summer. The South County business community touts it as an economic booster for the region. The airport authority says it could expand the limited capacity at Lindbergh Field.

But as the authority prepares to fund another study — it has already spent $40,000 on one looking at feasibility issues — authority officials say the concept is unprecedented. No one knows who would pay to build a cross-border terminal, which would require building a border crossing. And that crossing would require a permit from the U.S. president, something authority officials estimate would take 5 to 10 years to receive.

The cross-border terminal concept highlights both the opportunities and challenges the border poses in the San Diego-Tijuana region. Tijuana’s airport has one runway that is long and unencumbered enough to accommodate the types of airplanes that can’t land on Lindbergh Field’s short runway. It could open up the international markets that authority officials touted as being a vital part of their failed proposal to move Lindbergh Field to Marine Corps Air Station Miramar.

But it would require the coordination of two federal governments that don’t always see eye-to-eye on border issues. The border turns an airport issue into a more complex matter of diplomacy between two sovereign nations, pulling the U.S. State Department into what is essentially a regional question.

Authority officials do not hesitate to describe the significant hurdles they face in bringing the cross-border concept to fruition. It would not be built for more than a decade. Doing it any faster would require “a super-human effort,” authority Chairman Alan Bersin said. But the authority’s analysis so far reveals no insurmountable obstacles. Nor does it yet reveal who would pay to build the cross-border terminal.

“This is so unprecedented that you can’t say right now where the funding would come from,” said Keith Wilschetz, the authority’s director of airport system planning. “We have a long, long ways to go.”

Four concepts are being evaluated:

  • The simplest form: A parking structure on the California side of the border, with a secure walkway to the Tijuana airport terminal. Passengers would get their tickets in Mexico.
  • A full-service terminal on the California side with a walkway to the Tijuana airport concourse. Passengers would check bags and get tickets in the U.S. terminal and walk to their gate in Mexico.
  • A full-service terminal in California with a connection to a concourse for U.S. carriers in Mexico. “This is an unprecedented scenario, we don’t know if it can be done,” Wilschetz said.
  • The most complicated form: A full-service terminal, concourse and gates in California with a taxiway across the border to the Mexican runway. Such a taxiway would need to be monitored to ensure that it isn’t used to illegally enter the United States.

With its step forward Thursday, the authority agreed by a 7-1 vote to study the market demand for a cross-border terminal. An estimated 350,000 U.S. passengers use Tijuana’s airport annually, constituting about 10 percent of the airport’s travelers. By contrast, Lindbergh Field handled 17.5 million passengers last year.

The Tijuana airport offers a wider range of Mexican destinations than Lindbergh Field, where most Mexican flights are to either Mexico City or Cabo San Lucas. Tijuana serves other locations including Guadalajara, Acapulco and Cancun.

The authority will wait to receive a formal letter from the Mexican federal government indicating its interest in the concept before starting the market study. Board member and San Diego City Councilman Tony Young cast the dissenting vote, saying he wanted reassurances — in person — from Mexican authorities before spending any money.

Cindy Gompper-Graves, chief executive officer of the South County Economic Development Council, said Mexican officials were seeking similar assurances from the United States.

The market study will be a vital cog in the cross-border discussion. Wilschetz said the study would identify whether a cross-border terminal would boost San Diego’s air capacity. If it will, the Federal Aviation Administration could decide to get involved in planning, acting as a conduit between the airport authority and other federal agencies. If the cross-border concept would not increase capacity, the FAA won’t get involved, Wilschetz said.

“The situation is hard,” said Ramona Finnila, a new authority board member, “but not hopeless.”

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

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