Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2007 | Nearly a year has passed since voters delivered a major rebuke to the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority, rejecting a proposal to move the region’s international airport to Miramar.

As the vote approached, the airport authority preached doom and gloom about Lindbergh Field’s future. A capacity crunch was near. Traffic would get worse. Flights would get more expensive and delays would be more frequent.

But in the months since voters rejected the ballot initiative, the authority is in an unusual place politically. The agency must convince the public that it is sincere about staying at Lindbergh Field — the same airport that it was trying to escape less than 12 months ago.

“It’s disingenuous, but it’s politically necessary,” said Steve Erie, a University of California, San Diego political science professor. “They’ve got to put lipstick on the pig. They don’t have any options.”

Since the Miramar initiative failed, the authority has done little to address the capacity concerns that underscored the three-year-long public debate leading up to the public vote.

Airport authority members have consistently said that they understand that voters sent a message last November: Improve Lindbergh. But today, Lindbergh looks the same as it did then. And plans for its expansion, first proposed three years ago, have languished as the state Legislature has debated whether the authority’s management should be revamped.

The authority’s nine members have a more certain future now. The Assembly recently approved legislation that essentially leaves the authority’s management structure the same, while stripping three board members’ $171,000 salaries.

The authority’s members acknowledge the lack of progress this year but say they’re ready to move forward with plans to improve Lindbergh.

“What you will see now is the implementation of a consensus that took some time to reach,” authority Chairman Alan Bersin said. “We are ready to move, but we need to move according to the consensus that’s evolved and not get ahead of the community.”

In the short-term, the authority is focused on the first phase of its master plan. The $650 million project calls for a 5,000-space parking garage, double-decked arrival and departure curbs and 10 additional gates at Terminal II.

That’s not a new idea. The airport authority first identified the concept in 2005, though its environmental review was never approved. The authority now appears poised to push forward with the concept. The authority has begun public outreach, plans to release an updated concept of the plan Oct. 2 and aims to approve it early next year.

Lindbergh Field’s long-term fate remains undecided and could lead in several directions. Would it benefit to move the terminal to the north side of Lindbergh’s runway? Can Tijuana’s airport, which is far from capacity, provide a reliable relief valve? Can expansions be pushed at other regional airports such as Brown Field and McClellan-Palomar Airport in Carlsbad?

Bersin said the authority would begin engaging the community about those issues in coming months. But as that happens, one persistent question lingers. Should the authority save its money and wait to see if the military ever leaves Miramar, a 23,000-acre Marine Corps training base?

Some who supported the Miramar initiative say the military base remains the region’s only realistic option for a two-runway airport that could meet growing demand in coming decades.

“The long-term solution remains Miramar,” said John Chalker, a founder of ASAP-21, an alliance of local business groups that led cheerleading efforts for Miramar. “No one has come up with another viable solution.”

Bersin said that wait-and-see approach isn’t viable.

“We would be remiss to defer the necessary planning we have to do at Lindbergh,” Bersin said. “If we get back in the trap of putting things on hold with the expectation that there’s going to be a dues ex machina, I would urge us not to do that.”

The authority is currently studying demand for a cross-border terminal to Tijuana’s airport. The concept — travelers would park in the United States and fly out of Mexico — is difficult politically but potentially rewarding. Such an idea would take at least a decade to pull off and would require State Department involvement. Tapping into Tijuana’s airport could open up international markets to San Diego travelers, providing another relief on demand at Lindbergh.

Meanwhile, the debate about the north side of Lindbergh’s runway focuses on issues of airport access. Former state Senator Steve Peace says the authority should scrap its current master plan and study moving terminals to the runway’s north side. He says it would improve freeway and train access, while relieving bay-front traffic on Harbor Drive. Supervisor Ron Roberts and Peace, an advisor to Padres owner John Moores, have led efforts this year to propose a revamping of San Diego’s waterfront.

“There’s clearly some motivation or reasoning that makes them hesitant to take a full open and honest stab at looking at this,” Peace said. “They’re just giving a polite nod to it and thinking it will go away.”

The authority needs to focus its attention 15 or 20 years in the future, said Richard Carson, a UCSD economist who was a leading critic of the authority’s Miramar measure. That study should include a careful look at expanding either McClellan-Palomar Airport or Brown Field, Carson said, using the regional airports as potential relief valves for Lindbergh’s excess demand.

“They need to sit back and really carefully think about what Lindbergh needs to look like in the more distant future,” Carson said. “Because there’s no immediate crisis at Lindbergh.”

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

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