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San Diego leaders will take a crack at working out their differences on a plan to expand the San Diego International Airport and connect it to the trolley once and for all.
Mayor Kevin Faulconer is hosting a Nov. 20 meeting to reset the conversation over the Airport Authority’s plan to expand Terminal 1, after leaders from regional agencies criticized the plan’s handling of transportation problems created by all the new people flying into and out of the airport.
Since the Airport Authority released its plan, transit and planning officials have latched onto the idea of using it as an opportunity to settle a common local grouse: Why can’t you take the trolley to the airport?
Now, the mayor has called a meeting of executives and board chairs from the Metropolitan Transit System, the San Diego Association of Governments, the Airport Authority and the Port of San Diego to figure out how to get the $3 billion project back on track.
That was necessary after tensions escalated between the Airport Authority and other public agencies over how the plan proposed to address transportation problems associated with the expansion. The Port of San Diego, which leases the airport property to the Airport Authority, led the charge against the proposal, but groups like the California Coastal Commission, Caltrans, MTS and the city all blasted the airport’s plan as insufficient.
Since then, the Airport Authority has met one-on-one and in smaller groups with the affected agencies to start addressing their concerns, which has culminated in the mayor’s summit.
Faulconer said the Terminal 1 upgrade is overdue and necessary for regional growth.
“I’m confident we can meet our shared goal of making sure the airport continues to deliver a world-class customer experience while also prioritizing connectivity to our regional bus and rail network, reducing traffic congestion and improving public access to our waterfront,” he said in a statement.
Hanging over these talks is a sense of urgency from the Airport Authority that if the project gets delayed, it could die.
Kim Becker, CEO of the San Diego International Airport, said this is a crucial moment. Since airlines are profitable right now, they’re willing to contribute to infrastructure investments like improving terminals to give them more space for more flights.
A significant portion of the project’s cost is expected to be covered by increases to rates, fees and charges that the airlines that operate out of Terminal 1 pay to the Airport Authority. Southwest Airlines is the largest operator in the terminal.
Negotiations for those rate hikes are ongoing. Becker said the airlines are willing to pay more right now, but that’s new and shouldn’t be taken for granted, because things can change.
“We are fortunate that the airlines are right beside us and they want these improvements, and in fact they are pushing us to make these improvements,” Becker said. “I believe that if the economy turns and oil prices rise, and we price ourselves out of the market, they’ll be exactly on the opposite side of the table and we’ll be fighting against an unwilling partner.”
Likewise, Mark Cafferty, president and CEO of the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corporation, said the region needs to take seriously the possibility that it could lose a major economic development opportunity.
“We’ve certainly had instances in the past where we’ve missed a window of opportunity with an airline carrier, and as a result, we’ve lost flights to other markets or seen plans get shelved altogether,” said Cafferty. “However, this window of opportunity with Terminal 1 is significantly more important. We have major airline carriers that are not only willing to invest in new route service options, but in upgrades to our aging infrastructure.”
That urgency is running headlong into the concerns from MTS, SANDAG, the Port, the city and others that the airport’s environmental report for the project let it off the hook for improving transportation to and from the airport that could itself be an important regional investment.
The city, for instance, called for the Airport Authority to start over with a new environmental report. That alone could be a substantial delay, but there may not be any other way to address their concerns.
That’s because in its report, the airport said many traffic and transit improvements that would mitigate congestion from airport growth weren’t feasible, since the Federal Aviation Administration needs to formally approve spending that isn’t on airport grounds.
The FAA hasn’t given that approval yet, and it will take time before it can.
But those off-site improvements are exactly the ones that MTS, the Port and the city have zeroed in on as major priorities. Mainly, they include ideas like building an automated people-mover to the Middletown Trolley station, direct freeway ramps from the airport to I-5, or a dedicated lane and other enhancements for the MTS bus that goes to the airport.
Those are significant projects and including them as part of the Terminal 1 expansion would most likely mean restarting the environmental review process.
Figuring out how to maneuver the Airport Authority’s urgency and the other agencies’ desire for better transit improvements won’t be the only issue on the table at Faulconer’s meeting.
The other is whether it’s time to abandon the region’s longtime official vision for improving airport transportation.
SANDAG’s long-term plan for transportation infrastructure throughout the region includes something called the “intermodal transit center,” which would consolidate Amtrak, Coaster, bus and trolley service in a new station on the northeastern edge of airport property. It does not have dedicated funding, nor is there a current plan to fund it in the future.
Although the ITC is the region’s formal answer to how it will extend trolley service to the airport, there’s a growing sense among regional leaders that it isn’t realistic and that building a people-mover to existing trolley stations is a better idea.
Becker said the Airport Authority – which conducted the environmental report for the Terminal 1 expansion assuming the unfunded ITC would somehow get built sometime in the future – just needs to know if the region has abandoned that idea.
“We are building to the plan that’s out there,” she said. “What we want is, if the region decides to go a different direction, then yes they need to make that decision, because some people are saying ‘the ITC is absolutely the right thing,’ other people are saying ‘Oh that’s ridiculous, that’s crazy.’ So we are building to what the plan says and if there’s something different that needs to be done or wants to be done, then we will participate in that.”