There are only two certainties when considering San Diego's airport situation. We know for sure that the current airport at Lindbergh Field is outdated and becoming more so, and that San Diegans will vote this November on a proposed replacement.
The questions are far more numerous. The group charged with proposing a solution is looking at nine potential sites and doesn't know how many it will place on the ballot, doesn't know if it will get the military cooperation necessary to keep five of the sites viable, and has yet to release in-depth reports on several of the sites that would detail potential impacts on traffic, noise and the environment.
The last question is of much interest to La Jollans, as one of the sites still awaiting an in-depth review is Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, just a few miles inland. The San Diego County Regional Airport Authority, which oversees Lindbergh Field and the 16 other airports in San Diego County, will release its report on Miramar and other potential sites within the next two months.
In addition to Miramar, the Airport Authority is considering sites at Naval Air Station North Island, Campo, Borrego Springs, the desert in Imperial County, Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton in North County, March Air Force Base in Riverside County and the existing airport site at Lindbergh Field. The Airport Authority is required by state law to have some kind of airport solution on the ballot this November for a countywide vote. But the authority board still doesn't know how such a ballot measure might look.
"Quite frankly, I can't tell you what the form the ballot language might take," Airport Authority Chairman Joe Craver said at a public town hall meeting held April 27. "The law on it is very vague. It just says to bring a solution. That could be a 'yes no' vote on airport 'A,' or it could be 'choose between A or B.' It could be multiple choice.' "
Craver said the board would finalize the ballot language in the next two months after all the site reports have been completed and analyzed.
Craver and Airport Authority President and Chief Executive Officer Thella Bowens portrayed the existing location at Lindbergh Field as being too small already and lacking in any real options for expansion. The Airport Authority first started considering replacement options for the 75-year-old Lindbergh Field nearly 40 years ago, Craver said.
Bowens said San Diego International Airport is the busiest single-runway airport in the nation, more than twice as busy as the next busiest single-runway airport, in Fort Meyers, Fla. In terms of the number of passengers to come through the airport each year, San Diego's facility is actually much more comparable to the airport in Tampa, Fla., which handles 19 million passengers per year compared to San Diego's 17.4 million.
In terms of size, however, there is no comparison. Tampa's airport has three full-time runways and takes up 3,300 acres. San Diego International Airport checks in at 661 acres.
Considering that more than one million new residents are expected to move to San Diego County in the next 25 years and the region's long-term growth as a tourist destination, the space crunch at Lindbergh is only going to get worse in the coming years. The Airport Authority predicts that runway capacity will begin to constrain growth in flight operations some time between 2015 and 2022.
The runway, which handled about 210,000 operations in 2004, is expected to reach 300,000 annual operations some time before 2030, at which point runway capacity would not allow any further growth in operations, the Airport Authority predicts.
"Airports compete with each other just as cities do," Craver said. "The city and the region need our airport to be a competitor."
Short-term solutions have already been approved and will be implemented in the coming years. The airport authority will add parking and 10 new gates to the 41 in operation at San Diego International Airport. Any expansion beyond that at the current site would be difficult because Lindbergh Field is surrounded geographically by the harbor, Downtown, the Marine Corps Recruit Depot and by hills to the east.
In its search for potential replacement sites, the board considered every possibility, Craver said, including such outside-the-box suggestions as a floating airport in the ocean connected by a causeway to San Diego. Craver said a floating airport opened recently in Japan had the benefit of calmer water conditions and still has not been a complete success.
Other sites among the more than 30 considered were eliminated for reasons including terrain obstructions such as mountains and hills. The board eliminated sites that would require relocations of more than 5,000 people or would expose more than 10,000 people to a certain noise level. It also eliminated from consideration sites that would require more than 100 million net cubic yards of cut and fill preparation.
Distance was not a factor in the process, which is why the board is considering the site in the middle of the Imperial County desert. That site could be connected to metropolitian San Diego by a high-speed elevated train, Craver said.
At the April 27 town hall meeting, which was held at Congregation Beth Israel in University City, many public speakers said they believed the board has already decided that Miramar will be the site that goes to the ballot. Craver dismissed those suggestions.
"I think a lot of the media is focusing on Miramar and saying we are focusing on Miramar. But in my mind, it's still wide open," Craver said.
The board recently released a study that found that Miramar would be the most accessible site of the nine finalists, but city staff member Ryan Hall said that would not move Miramar to the top of the list of possibilities.
"It just looked at what percentage of people could reach the site within a certain number of minutes," Hall said. "There was no preferential ranking."
The Airport Authority's proposal for Miramar would add two runways to the two already in use by the Marine Corps and would construct a 220-acre terminal and aircraft parking area. Craver said calling the site a lock to appear on the ballot would be to ignore the challenges inherent in the location.
"In my mind, there are real challenges with Miramar," Craver said. "You'd be dropping an international airport in a highly and densely populated area. I also believe that the way the runways are situated present an extreme challenge."
Craver added that every potential site presents difficulties. Stuart Simmons, president of Congregation Beth Israel and host of the town hall, said the Marine Corps planes departing over University City from the current runways can cause noise disturbances.
"Every so often, we'll have a jet take off that's so loud we have to stop what we're doing," Simmons said.
Craver said that commercial airplanes are quieter than most the military uses and getting quieter. The Airport Authority's findings on how much of a noise disturbance surrounding communities would incur should the airport be built at Miramar will be included in the site report due to be released in the next two months.
One challenge with Miramar is that it would require the military to agree to joint use of the site. Craver said that hasn't happened yet, though the military has been cooperative in providing information about the site itself.
"The military has made it very clear that the answer is no," Craver said. "The board is very aware of that."
The military's presence on the site is just one of the reasons City Council President Scott Peters thinks the new airport should be put somewhere besides Miramar.
"I think it was a great idea in 1945 when we could have gotten that land for a dollar," Peters said. "I think with all the development there, it's just not a compatible use. I also think the military is not just important to us here in San Diego, but to the United States. I think we should look at other options."
Linda Colley, chair of the University Community Planning Group, said the group had drafted a resolution opposing joint use at Miramar, citing traffic as a main concern.
"Miramar Road and La Jolla Village Drive would have to be used to get there," Colley said. "Didn't La Jolla Village Drive just get an 'F' service level grade? We really don't want you to pick the Miramar site."
Traffic impacts will also be covered when the Airport Authority releases its report on the site. The Airport Authority can pay only for roadways that exclusively serve the airport, which Colley took to mean that public funds would have to be used for any improvements to La Jolla Village Drive or Miramar Road.
The cost of constructing the airport itself is still unknown and quite dependent on which site is chosen. The cost would be covered by federal funding, existing passenger facility charges of $4.50 per ticket, airport revenues and airport revenue bonds the Airport Authority would issue.
Given the increasingly claustrophobic situation at Lindbergh Field, the time to act is now, Craver said. The Airport Authority estimates it would take between 15 and 20 years to get a new airport built.
"It doesn't take that long to actually build an airport," Bowens said. "Fifteen to 20 years takes into account the time spent on land aquisition, environmental reviews and the litigation that will inevitably come."