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Living in San Diego often feels like standing on the edge of a precipice: Something really great could happen that would save you from falling off the edge; something terrible could befall you like getting pushed over the edge; but without a doubt the uncertainty is going to kill you.
I have lived in San Diego now for almost seven years. What I have discovered in that short time is that this City — our City — is on the precipice of something really great, and yet something terrible inevitably happens that prevents us from realizing the City’s full potential. For instance, in 2004, the City’s pension underfunding calamity was being revealed publicly, and San Diego citizens knew that things at City Hall had to change. So they voted into office Mike Aguirre — only one of two city-wide elected officials — as an important agent of change. But instead of the City coming to realize its full potential in these past four years, Mike Aguirre has obstructed positive change at every opportunity. That’s what I mean when I write that something terrible seems to inevitably happen before we get to where we need to be.
Another example is playing out as we blog: The airport master plan for San Diego Lindbergh Field. In November 2006, a vast majority of voters nixed the idea of trying to steal from the military one of its most valuable wartime assets — U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Miramar — during a time of war no less. So now our government leaders are tasked with the daunting feat of making the best and highest public use of our existing airport at Lindbergh Field. The task is especially daunting because it was initially left to a government entity whose narrow focus is limited to inside the bright-line boundaries of the airport. This organization could not seem to see beyond those boundaries to appreciate the impacts its master planning on the airport would have on the entire region.
Given the magnitude of the task at hand (to maximize Lindbergh Field for the foreseeable future), how does the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority respond? Let’s build out 10 more airline gates; let’s expand the taxiway holding area on the north side of the runway; and let’s do some runway repairs; then we’ll do some more planning in 2015. That’s pretty much it. Where is the vision here? Where is the all-encompassing embrace of San Diego’s fullest potential?
Instead, we stand here on the precipice once again. An inter-governmental “working group” has now formed to try to find the future vision for the City and the airport; it involves the City, San Diego Association of Governors, the Port District and the Airport Authority. It was largely formed after a non-profit organization headed by former State Senator Steve Peace took the lead in researching and drafting up some very detailed plans for a “Lindbergh Intermodal Transportation Center,” that would move the terminals to the north side of the airport, would build out 60 gates (compared to the total of 51 gates after the current Terminal 2-West build-out is completed), would provide consolidated, multi-modal transit access right into the airport, and would result in a world-leading “green airport” that would serve as a model of environmental sustainability. Perhaps the best part of the plan is that it would significantly alleviate traffic congestion on Harbor Drive and reduce vehicle miles traveled and their consequent carbon emissions, whereas, if the Authority’s master plan moves forward, it will back traffic up all the way into downtown and will adversely affect the environmental review of every future downtown development.
And, yet, the Authority is moving forward with its master plan. It plans to begin spending approximately $650 million in early 2009 for the 10 new gates that will be completely unnecessary if the inter-governmental working group decides to move all the terminals to the north side of the airport. Moreover, as Scott Lewis of the Voice pointed out a few weeks ago, why are we moving forward to build out new gates at Lindbergh when passenger data shows that air travel is down (probably due to higher fuel and ticket prices)? Thella Bowens, President and CEO of the Airport Authority, confirmed at last week’s Authority Board meeting that the airlines currently occupy only 65 percent of the existing gates. So one might ask: Why are we set on spending so much money to build to even more excess capacity? That question is particularly valid where some of our business and government leaders actually have a vision of the future for one of San Diego’s most important regional assets: Lindbergh Field.