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Statement: “Projected take-offs and landings are expected to increase to as much as 260,000 a year by 2015 — 30 percent more than today,” the San Diego Airport Authority said in a brochure explaining the need for a new airport, which became a failed ballot initiative in 2006.

Analysis: The warnings sounded dire. Even worse, they sounded certain. For five decades, politicians and studies had cried wolf about the inadequacy of San Diego’s one-runway, 661-acre downtown airport.

This time, airport leaders said, the wolf was really here.

We’re looking at big promises and warnings that city leaders have made in years past, fact checking them to see whether they came true.

This one came in 2006. And as part of its push to move San Diego’s international airport to the Miramar Marine Corps Air Station, the San Diego Airport Authority warned that the city’s current airport, often called Lindbergh Field, was nearing capacity. It would be congested as soon as 2015, adding an average 20-minute delay to flights, dissuading airlines from adding new routes and laying siege to the region’s economy and quality of life. The authority warned that billions in economic output could be lost.

Even in the best-case scenario, the authority said, Lindbergh wouldn’t last past 2022.

With that trouble looming, the authority’s leaders said, they needed to start building a new airport right away. They’d need a decade or more to secure necessary approvals and move before Lindbergh’s trouble hit. They proposed a ballot initiative to relocate the airport to Miramar, which county voters overwhelmingly rejected in November 2006.

The congestion projections, outlined in a consultant’s 2004 report, underpinned the entire saga. They were its foundation.

They were frequently cited by the authority’s chairman, Joe Craver, and its CEO, Thella Bowens. There they were in brochures mailed to county voters. And in PowerPoint presentations, news stories, editorials, staff presentations and more.

Lindbergh Field’s end was drawing nigh, and the authority had the numbers to prove it.

Fast-forward to today, and the warnings aren’t coming true.

The authority measured the airport’s capacity in the number of takeoffs and landings it could accommodate. Once Lindbergh Field hit 260,000 annual takeoffs and landings, it’d be congested, they said.

But as the housing bubble burst and the economy tanked, takeoffs and landings dropped sharply. Last year, they reached their lowest level since 1986 (186,000). That’s about 48,000 fewer takeoffs and landings than the authority had projected by now in its worst-case scenario.

The authority acknowledges that the recession and economic downturn have altered the timeframe in which Lindbergh Field could become congested. It plans to update its projections later this year, authority spokesman Steve Shultz said in an email. They’re expected to show slower growth than previously anticipated, Shultz said, because of the economic downturn. He said:

As a result, it is likely that the point at which the airport’s runway will reach capacity will occur later than was anticipated during the Site Selection study.  A specific timeframe at which the runway is expected to reach capacity will not be known until the new forecast is available.

We weighed whether to label the authority’s original projections false, but ultimately decided not to. While they’re not coming true – and even though the authority acknowledges that it doesn’t expect them to – it’s also not 2015 yet, and we can’t anticipate what might happen at Lindbergh Field in the next three years.

Regardless, it would take a staggering increase in operations for Lindbergh to experience congestion in 2015. The projections treated as unquestionable truth during the push to Miramar are far from happening.

If you disagree with our determination or analysis, please express your thoughts in the comments section of this blog post. Explain your reasoning.

Rob Davis is a senior reporter at Voice of San Diego. You can contact him directly at rob.davis@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0529.

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Rob Davis

Rob Davis was formerly a senior reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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