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Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher has a new target: the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority.
She’s scheduled next week to unveil legislation that would make the independent agency — and its $250 million annual budget — part of the port of San Diego once again. This is the third major shakeup of a local entity that Gonzalez Fletcher has proposed in Sacramento.
In 2015, Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed her bill to revamp the downtown redevelopment agency Civic San Diego — though major changes are now in store at that agency due to a subsequent lawsuit.
And last year, Brown signed her bill that remade the power structure at the San Diego Association of Governments, which was trapped in a scandal at the time, and the Metropolitan Transit System.
Her newest proposal would effectively undo 2003 legislation that took the Airport Authority out from the port and turned it into its own public agency. The airport still leases land from the port and is its largest tenant.
Both agencies are governed by a board appointed by elected officials.
Gonzalez Fletcher said she had been considering a revamp of the agency since before she was elected, but the idea got a kickstart a few months ago when she spoke to the Downtown Partnership.
There, she made an off-the-cuff remark that some people interpreted as a threat and others as a joke. She mentioned that people talk to her about the airport, but that she didn’t intend to propose anything.
“I was making the point to people in the room, including the lobbyist for the airport, that dealing with people to make certain steps would be positive, so that we don’t have to do legislation,” she said.
But people who heard about her comments — allies in labor and the environmentalist and transit-advocacy community — reached out to support the idea. She said one elected official from the city of San Diego told her to consider giving authority over the airport to the city itself.
People who didn’t like the idea started talking about it too.
“This is different than SANDAG,” she said. “I don’t detest the Airport Authority. This is about what’s best for regional planning, and what we had in mind 16 years ago when the Airport Authority was created.”
Back then, the region was working toward a big decision. Leaders had for years discussed relocating the airport, an idea that ended up on the ballot in 2006. The Airport Authority’s first big task was preparing for and working towards that vote.
Voters soundly rejected the ballot initiative to move the airport to Miramar Marine Corps Air Station. After that, the Authority pivoted to improving Lindbergh Field.
“The number one reason we moved the Airport Authority failed, and now we have new problems.“ Gonzalez Fletcher said. “This isn’t like SANDAG; there’s no malfeasance here. It’s just not the best way to plan regionally and we need to have that discussion.”
April Boling, the chair of the Airport Authority, said the agency wasn’t solely created to relocate it.
Instead, Boling said the goal in 2003 was to create an agency whose sole purpose was improving the airport, with all of its revenues re-routed back into that purpose and not just a part of the port’s larger ambitions.
“My understanding is, that’s why it was broken off in the first place; there was controversy around relocating it, not just among the public but on the board too,” she said. “Once the measure failed, we said ‘That’s the will of the people,’ and all efforts since then have been about improving the airport for San Diego.”
Gonzalez Fletcher said an isolated agency doesn’t make sense. The airport is at the center of region-wide questions that are better handled by a regionally focused agency. She identified preparedness for climate change and sea-level rise, and transportation issues getting to and from the airport – specifically with traffic on Harbor Drive and extending the trolley to the airport.
“There’s a lot of things that haven’t been done because of the isolationist approach at the airport,” Gonzalez Fletcher said.
Boling said she doesn’t know what to make of those concerns, because to her view the Airport Authority is already thinking regionally. She said she’s emphasized sea-level rise in the agency’s planning documents, and that the board has created a committee on Harbor Drive involving multiple jurisdictions while working with SANDAG and MTS to figure out how to connect the airport to the trolley system.
“We’d like nothing more than have the trolley come right up to the airport, but we’ve been told by MTS that it just is not within the realm of possibility,” she said.
Port Chairman Rafael Castellanos, meanwhile, said in a written statement that he and the port reached out to Gonzalez Fletcher after learning she was considering legislation. He said the port would provide input and eventually review it for consideration once it’s in writing.
“We think it is very important to weigh in on any bill that could affect our operations and can improve local and regional transportation planning (including greater use of Transit), as well as adaptation planning and sea level rise preparedness on the Public Trust lands that the State of California has entrusted us to manage,” he said. “In this case, the port is uniquely situated to advise as we served as the agency that ran the airport for many years, it is located on our waterfront land, and is our largest tenant.”
There are still plenty of details to sort out in the overhaul. For instance, the airport authority oversees multiple smaller airports around the county; Gonzalez Fletcher said she’s open to discussing with the cities in which they’re located how to best handle them in the future. She also said it’s possible the Airport Authority could remain its own agency within the port, providing advisory recommendations on airport functions much like the Planning Commission does for the City Council.
But the airport’s budget would not simply go into the port’s general fund to be spent however the port wants. Federal Aviation Administration rules stipulate how airport-derived funds can be spent. Both Boling and Gonzalez Fletcher agree there’d be strings attached even at the port.
The Airport is poised for some major capital projects. It’s readying for a remodel of Terminal 1 that could run $2 billion, spent over multiple years and phases.
Fletcher Gonzalez’s bill to reform Civic San Diego would have put the agency’s decisions into the hands of the City Council, a more labor-friendly body that could have granted more labor-friendly deals.
And her SANDAG bill included so-called skilled and trained workforce requirements that benefit construction-related unions.
Gonzalez Fletcher said she hasn’t considered including a similar requirement in this bill, but that she might not need to.
“That’s always a priority of mine, and I don’t hold back in saying so,” she said. “We haven’t talked to (the San Diego Construction and Building Trades Council) but if it’s under the port I’m not sure we need to. It’s a different board with different sensibility. But that’s not what’s driving me.”
Construction on the airport’s Green Build, a $1 billion rebuild of Terminal 2 completed in 2013, did not include a union-friendly project labor agreement.
“What motivated me more than anything is, look, there’s going to be serious changes at Civic,” Gonzalez Fletcher said. “Maybe my bill didn’t get signed, but it pushed along something that needed to be changed. This is the start of another conversation. We have until August to get things finalized, and until now these are discussions we weren’t having.”
Boling said that’s the problem.
“We’re going to deal with this, and that’s kind of a shame, because we had been putting all our time into (the Terminal 1 redevelopment), and this pulls resources away from that,” she said.