I wonder if you were as surprised as I was to see the U-T mock the mayor and other proponents of the comprehensive revision of Lindbergh Field Tuesday.

After all, reading the U-T editorial board declare that someone is “not tethered to reality” on the airport issue is too much.

But let’s go through this. You might have seen Rob Davis‘ strong piece on what was going on that led to the roll out of the new plans. Davis was perfectly positioned for this. He cut his teeth in this town covering the airport authority and the push to site a new airport at Miramar Marine Corps Air Station — a movement that was smothered at the ballot box.

More than two-thirds of the county’s residents told the airport authority to pound sand. Given that rejection, the mayor and others decided that rather than maintain the dream that they could put an airport at Miramar, they might try to make the best of what they have — namely, Lindbergh Field.

Rather than take issue with the plans, the U-T is still fighting the 2006 battle about the assumptions:

Here are the facts: Lindbergh Field’s single, shorter-than-normal runway will reach flight capacity within the next decade or so. When that day arrives, as it inevitably will, San Diego’s economy will begin a slow strangulation caused by air transportation gridlock.

In brash defiance of this reality, a panel led by Mayor Jerry Sanders now proposes to spend a colossal $12 billion to redo the airport — rearranging terminals, car rental offices, parking facilities, baggage check-in, etc. Passengers would have to endure the inconvenience of checking in at terminals on the north side of the airport and traveling through an expensive tunnel under the runway to reach their gates on the south side.

Yet, astonishingly, this multibillion-dollar initiative would not increase Lindbergh Field’s capacity by a single passenger or a single ton of cargo.

As long as we’re talking about facts, let’s throw a few out: The actual flights in and out of Lindbergh have gone down. This was the trend before the economic collapse. Take a look at this: Fewer flights came in and out of Lindbergh 2008 compared to 2007. And the number didn’t change at all from 2005 to 2007 — at the height of an overall economic boom.

Growth of operations may, indeed, increase again some time in the future. But if an economic mania did not propel Lindbergh toward the asphyxiating congestion that so frightens the U-T, then what will?

Hard to say. But let’s put that aside for a second and assume that operations do trend upward again someday.

Another fact: The U-T says that “this multibillion-dollar initiative would not increase Lindbergh Field’s capacity by a single passenger or a single ton of cargo.”

This is also deliberately misleading. Sure, the mayor isn’t giving birth to another runway for the small airport. Nor is the actual capacity of the one runway is not going to increase under his plan.

But here’s the thing: The way things are we can’t even take advantage of the full capacity of Lindbergh. In other words, we have to add terminals and change up the alignment in order for Lindbergh to be able to handle as many planes as it could.

Under even the U-T’s dream plan, there was going to be major revisions to Lindbergh to stretch it to its limits. After all, a new airport at Miramar would have taken at least 15 years to become a reality. The plan was to spend a tremendous amount of capital just to renovate Lindbergh so it could handle the wait.

I called John Chalker, a local businessman whose expertise on transportation needs and the airport is unparalleled. To be sure, Chalker pushed for the Miramar airport too, but I trust his opinion as much as anyone’s in town. He pointed out that for Lindbergh to be able to reach its capacity, before the mayor et. al came out with their latest plan, they were going to have to add 10 new gates at the west end of Terminal 2 and completely rebuild Terminal 1.

He said that the work this new team has done to imagine Lindbergh 20 years into the future is “the best work I’ve seen a consultant do on the airport in god knows how long.”

Does Chalker think the mayor and others are not tethered to reality?

No. He says that although he still would like to see an airport sited at Miramar or somewhere else spacious enough to handle a massive air transportation hub, the new plan still allows for a comprehensive “final” solution like that.

“This plan clearly has flexibility in it should some other location become available. In the timeline they’ve got, you don’t even put a shovel in the ground for 10 years,” Chalker said.

In other words, relax. Here’s a plan to make the most of Lindbergh. We can start to put it into motion now, because it’s going to take years to get over the hurdles and in the meantime, if a dream option arises, we can shift gears. But no longer are we going to remain hostages to the dreams of the U-T and others who see anything short of building a massive airport at Miramar as lunacy.

It makes sense to make the most of what we have now. We may need to challenge these particular plans or change them over time, but the assumptions behind them are sound: It’s time we move on, once and for all, from thinking that the only thing we can do to prepare for the future of airports in San Diego is to plan for a new huge one.

San Diego is not Denver. We’re in the very corner of the country and we’re never going to serve as the place where people come in order to get somewhere else. We don’t need to be insecure about that.

So let’s review. Which is more unrealistic? To A) cling to a dream that an operating military base might become a massive new regional airport in spite of a brutal rejection by voters, the resistance from the technology industry and the wealthy neighbors in Scripps Ranch and La Jolla, and in the meantime mock people who are trying to … or B) accept that for the indefinite future, no massive plot of land is available for an airport and plan for what we can do in the meantime to take advantage of what we have.

I think you know how I feel.


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