Saturday, Feb. 9, 2008 | In his two-year tenure as San Diego’s mayor, Jerry Sanders has said little about the future of the region’s airport. During the airport authority’s controversial push to move Lindbergh Field to Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, Sanders stayed neutral — a blow to proponents of the move.

But in the last two weeks, with the airport authority drawing close to approving a plan to add 10 gates, a parking garage and overnight jet parking at Lindbergh to accommodate increasing passenger demand, Sanders has emerged as a champion of an effort to broadly examine the 661-acre airport’s potential.

His position has given traction to ideas that have long been touted by Steve Peace, a former state senator and advisor to Padres owner John Moores. For the past year, Peace and county Supervisor Ron Roberts have sought to articulate a broader vision for San Diego’s waterfront. Peace has argued against the 10-gate expansion, instead pushing for a plan that would move Lindbergh’s terminals to the north side of the airport’s sole runway and establish rail and interstate access.

But until recently, Peace had not found a champion willing to advance his ideas. That has changed. As the authority has drawn close to approving its plan, the city and the San Diego Association of Governments, a regional planning agency, have threatened to sue over the expansion’s traffic impacts. That has given the city the leverage to negotiate for a longer view of Lindbergh’s future.

The mayor’s interest has come as Peace, a Democrat, has weighed a run for mayor. Peace confirmed that he had contemplated running for mayor and that Sanders was aware of it. But both Peace and Fred Sainz, a spokesman for Sanders, said there was no connection between the contemplated run and Sanders’ newly articulated interest in Peace’s vision for Lindbergh Field’s future.

“There was never any conversation along those lines,” Peace said. “They knew that there were some folks talking to me. They also knew for me that (running) was not a likely thing to occur.”

Sainz similarly rejected the idea that a connection existed. “That kind of an assertion is absolutely ridiculous,” he said. “Jerry has always felt strongly that you needed to maximize the full potential of Lindbergh Field.”

What form that maximization may take is still uncertain. Even before the Miramar ballot initiative’s failure, the airport authority had sought to build the 10-gate expansion at Lindbergh’s Terminal II. The effort was initially viewed as a bridge to accommodate demand while a Miramar airport was built. But the attempt to move to Miramar was rejected in November 2006, and the authority again turned to the expansion plan as a short-term fix.

The expansion was often called “Phase I” of planning Lindbergh Field’s future. But the authority has never committed to what form a second phase would take. Alan Bersin, the airport authority’s chairman, said a process to determine a vision for that second phase is underway, through community meetings and dialogues with the region’s leaders. It has not yet reached any conclusions.

That the authority has not articulated a vision for the airport’s long-term future helped expose the agency to criticism during its $17 million site-selection process culminating in the Miramar ballot initiative’s defeat. During that process, the vision for a future at Miramar was clearly articulated. But the alternative — staying at Lindbergh — has never been defined.

Sanders and Peace say they do not oppose the 10-gate expansion. But they say it is imperative to know how it fits into the broader context of Lindbergh’s future. It is a sign that Sanders accepts Lindbergh Field as the region’s future airport, that the 2006 Miramar defeat has solidly eliminated the military base from consideration.

And it signals that the weighty questions about San Diego’s future air transportation needs will be answered more concretely in the next year, a lofty goal in a region that has debated what to do with Lindbergh Field since Eisenhower was president. The mayor said he wanted a vision for Lindbergh’s future within nine to 12 months.

What form that planning process will take or how exhaustive it will be is still undetermined. Sainz said a joint powers authority currently being negotiated between the city, airport authority and San Diego Association of Governments would provide a starting point.

The negotiations for establishing that group are underway. As it stands, the airport authority would still approve its 10-gate expansion plan this spring but not break ground until the longer vision is complete. If the process sparked by Sanders “suggests there should be a mid-course correction in the short-term plan,” Bersin said, “we could do that.”

The city and Sandag hold a bargaining chip by threatening the suit over traffic impacts. The two agencies do not believe the airport expansion plan has fully evaluated the effects the new gates and expanded parking will have on traffic around the airport.

Peace and Sanders say an “intermodal transit center” must be evaluated on the north side of Lindbergh’s sole runway. The facility would potentially link nearby Interstate 5 and rail lines with the airport and ease traffic pressure on Harbor Drive.

Airport authority members say they welcome the city’s involvement.

“If in fact you can make this thing happen,” Bersin said, “then you have a coherent, rational plan for the build out of the airport that’s functional through 2030, 2035.”

As the effort unfolds, it will touch on sensitive subjects: What role the military’s nearby land may play and whether Lindbergh can accommodate a second, shorter runway. Parts of the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, adjacent to Lindbergh Field, have been eyed for an airport taxiway expansion. And Peace said the south side of the existing runway, where the terminals sit now, should be preserved to potentially accommodate a shorter, parallel runway that would help increase Lindbergh’s capacity.

Peace and Moores’ role in the debate has raised questions about whether the Padres owner is seeking changes in the airport’s layout in order to develop the bay front. At a midday press conference Friday, Peace said the motive was philanthropic. Peace has been intimately involved in the region’s airport planning before. As a state legislator, he championed the legislation that created the airport authority and established the framework for the site-selection process.

“This was an act of philanthropy,” he said. “It’s a gift and an exercise in public obligation. This isn’t a business proposition.”

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