Sunday, Feb. 1, 2009 | Lindbergh Field’s future is becoming clearer.

A year-long planning effort to decide what the region’s 661-acre international airport should be when it grows up has outlined between $4.8 billion and $13 billion in improvements that could be made in the next two decades.

Immediately, though, only one plan is certain: a $900 million to $1 billion project to add 10 gates at Terminal II, expand airplane overnight parking and double-deck the access road that runs by the terminals. The airport authority believes it can finance the project; construction could begin this year.

For the first time since the failed move to Miramar, a group of regional leaders, led by San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders, has reached consensus about San Diego’s future airport plans. The other projects won’t be built immediately and may never be. But for now, they help resolve a long-running debate about how to make the most of Lindbergh. Three projects, conceived during the last year, have a longer time horizon and include:

  • A consolidated rental car facility and transit center on the north side of the airport’s runway. The transit center would provide a bus, trolley and Coaster connection to the airport. The car facility would free up bay-front land where individual companies sit today and cut down on congestion on city streets. Passengers returning car rentals would access the airport after exiting the interstate. Today, rental car customers are shuttled from the airport to individual facilities around the harbor.

“It gives us an opportunity to bring people in right off the freeway,” Sanders said. “There’s an immediate impact for people who work in that area or live in that area.”

Timeframe: 2015-2020. Cost: $569 million-$830 million (depending on inflation).

  • Tearing down and replacing the Commuter Terminal and Terminal I, which today services Southwest Airlines, United and Alaska Airlines. As that happened, the transit center would be expanded. Passengers for the new consolidated terminal would check in at the transit center on the runway’s north side and be shuttled to newly built gates on the south side through an underground tunnel. A new, linear terminal design would allow more gates to be built than the airport’s current curved alignment.

Timeframe: 2020-2030. Cost: $1.8 billion-$3.9 billion.

  • Tearing down and replacing Terminal II. The transit center would be expanded again. All passengers would check in there, on the north side, and be shuttled to gates on the runway’s south side. Airport access from Harbor Drive would be eliminated.

Timeframe: 2030+. Cost: $1.6 billion-$7.6 billion.

Those projects carry no guarantee of being built. The authority doesn’t know exactly how it would pay for them. Participants say the rental car facility and transit center are the most likely. The latter two phases with new terminals, several said, amount to a wish list. “It could be just another study sitting on their shelf,” said Mary Sessom, Lemon Grove’s mayor and a Sandag board member who participated in the planning effort.

At the least, the concepts provide consensus for Lindbergh’s future. When the airport authority attempted to move the region’s international airport to Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in 2006, critics assailed the authority for failing to offer any vision for what Lindbergh could become.

The authority has since been pushing to build the 10-gate expansion to accommodate existing passenger volumes. The city of San Diego and San Diego Association of Governments threatened to sue last year, saying the authority failed to consider the project’s impacts on traffic congestion around the airport. That threat launched the ongoing planning effort, which has involved county, city and other regional officials in planning that typically belongs to the airport authority. It’s scheduled to conclude in March; the authority would then be responsible for implementing and financing the projects.

Participants believe their consensus vision for Lindbergh will promote travelers’ use of public transit. The airport authority is agreeing to scrap plans for a parking garage, which the city and Sandag believed would increase congestion on roads around the airport. They say swapping the garage for a transit connection will help guarantee the rail and bus center gets built. Meeting passenger demand will necessitate it. No detailed financing plan exists.

The current planning effort focused specifically on maximizing Lindbergh’s 661 acres — not on obtaining land at the adjacent Marine Corps Recruit Depot. But Sanders said it leaves that option open. A land swap or purchase from the Marines would allow the airport to extend a key taxiway that runs parallel along the runway’s north side. That would allow terminals to be built on the runway’s north side. Planes could land, turn right and head to their terminal. Without the land, they’d have to turn left and cross the runway — something that would cause runway congestion.

“Should their mission change, should they decide they’d like to do things a different way, we haven’t precluded that,” Sanders said. The region’s officials have given Sanders the responsibility to discuss the land with the military — when he thinks it’s appropriate. “It’s one that has to be done respectfully at some point,” he said.

Supporters of moving the airport to Miramar question the viability of investments at Lindbergh. They still hold out hope that the Marine Corps base will someday become available.

“The whole question is, ‘Can you afford these ideas?’” said John Chalker, who supported the failed Miramar initiative and now serves on two airport authority advisory committees. “The downtown library was a design that we couldn’t afford. You don’t want to see that happen with the airport.”

That paradox continues to confront future airport planning in San Diego — how much should be invested in Lindbergh Field, a site that the airport authority was trying to escape three years ago.

In answering that question, though, local leaders are confronted with a reality. Doing nothing and simply hoping they will someday be able to move the region’s international airport to Marine Corps Air Station Miramar or another site threatens to exacerbate the capacity crunch they predict at Lindbergh.

“What we came in knowing is that the public said clearly, ‘We don’t want to see the airport at Miramar at this point, and we want to see you maximize Lindbergh,’” Sanders said.

Airport officials maintain that Lindbergh’s sole runway will someday limit its capacity to serve a projected air traffic increase. Today, parts of the airport — such as Southwest’s Terminal I gates — often teem with more people than seats. But the runway has not reached its limits. While more people are flying, planes are fuller. The number of takeoffs and landings at Lindbergh has remained steady for the last 20 years. The runway had fewer takeoffs and landings in 2008 (220,000) than it did in 1996 (226,000). Airport forecasts say Lindbergh will max out at 300,000 annual operations.

The regional effort appears to bring some harmony to Lindbergh planning. In the wake of the Miramar ballot defeat, Steve Peace and others questioned whether the authority’s planning efforts were designed to make Lindbergh fail and become inadequate. The city and Sandag are now preparing to embrace at least a conceptual vision for the airport.

“You still have the entrenched airport bureaucracy and consultants who are trying to preserve the momentum of their old plan,” said Peace, who works for developer and businessman John Moores and participated in the planning effort. “What we’re trying to do here is move a collective vision beyond the confines of the airport. We haven’t quite won their hearts at the airport authority, but we’ve opened their minds.”

Please contact Rob Davis directly at rob.davis@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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