SAN DIEGO — In November 2006, a ballot initiative will go before voters here to decide the future of air transportation in the region — will the airport remain at Lindbergh Field or move to a new site. In the meantime, the San Diego Regional Airport Authority is in the process of revising its master plan to prepare for the near-term growth at the constricted airfield. The largest component, a ten-gate expansion, is expected to be online sometime in 2010 and will allow the airport to handle just under 20 million annual passengers. In 2004, the airport saw some 16.4 million total passengers.
In addition to a 275,000-square foot, ten-gate terminal expansion, the project calls for roadway improvements, a new parking structure in front of the terminal, as well as redevelopment of the cargo and general aviation areas of the airfield.
The total cost of the expansion plan is still up in the air but Angela Shafer-Payne, VP-strategic planning, says the authority anticipates it will come in at some $540 million (escalated through 2008); environmental considerations may have an impact on that number. “We have put together numbers,” she explains, “but certainly as we go forward the biggest question in our minds, although we’ve done some fairly extensive study effort, is the fact that where we are expanding the terminal is the former Naval Training Center, and prior to that it was a landfill.”
The terminal expansion is projected to meet San Diego traffic needs through 2015 — an intentional move on the authority’s part, says Shafer-Payne. “It was intentional from the standpoint that we did not want to over-invest in this facility with the site selection program still underway.” She adds that this assumes that if the voters select a new airport site in November 2006, it would be ten to 15 years before the airport would move to the new site.
Shafer-Payne says the authority board is cognizant of the current needs of the region as well as the long-term air transportation needs. “Any expansion here or a new site will be expensive. And we don’t have costs for that new site, but they (the board) certainly recognize that that’s not an inexpensive effort; and wanting to make sure that when the voters go the ballot box that they have confidence that the board has not gone out and asked for extraordinary expansion plans here that cannot be recovered potentially in time for the move to a new location.
“We didn’t want to send a conflicting message that we were, let’s say, building at this site for the needs through 2025 or 2030 and then be asking the voters to, potentially, look at a new site in November of 2006. “Often a confusing message that we face today [is] people often question in the region why do we even need to plan through 2025. I think there’s just a general misunderstanding that once we get a positive vote in November 2006, that we could move quickly and be at a new site within five years — we know that’s not true. So we need to make some improvements here, but we need to do so prudently so that we’re not precluding any future expansion or relocation to a new site.”
If it’s determined that the airport will remain at Lindbergh Field, the terminal expansion that is upcoming is flexible enough to accommodate future growth. “That’s one of the key decision components for our board and staff,” says Shafer-Payne.
If the airport is not successful in finding a new site, the master plan shows the newest facilities remaining in the same location and improvements or expansion affecting the older structures, including Terminal 1 and working eastward.
Forecasts which look out to 2030 detail both a high- and low-growth scenario for the airport. The low scenario, assuming a very slow recovery from the events of 9/11 and a 2.2 percent annual growth rate, show the airport at just over 27 million annual passengers in 2030. The high scenario, assuming a 2.8 percent growth rate averaged out over the years, shows the airport’s total passengers at 32 million in 2030. “We believe with the capacity constraints of the runway, we can probably accommodate no more than 24 million passengers annually at this facility today in its current runway configuration,” Shafer-Payne says. “We would simply need to provide a second runway to really get capacity anything above 24 million.” She adds that while at some airports 24 million passengers on a single runway may be feasible, “We have a departure curfew, and we really only have a 17-hour operating day.”
Rethinking Airfield Layout
Lindbergh Field’s lack of acreage and its location are among the reasons necessitating change for the region. According to Shafer-Payne, from a planning perspective, the airport authority believes that some incremental changes to the airfield are necessary. She explains that with aircraft operating from the north, particularly cargo carriers, some of the remaining overnight aircraft and corporates taxi to take off from Runway 27, resulting in a jet blast right into the general aviation facility.
“We didn’t feel that it was prudent to leave the general aviation facility in that location from a planning perspective. Our board agrees with that … we have a long-time tenant as the current operator for the general aviation facilities.
“I think from a planning perspective, the board feels comfortable and understands the reasons why, for safety and efficiency on the airfield, we need to relocate general aviation facilities, but what has not been decided is how those facilities will be operated and who will operate them.”
The airport authority is uncertain as to how the ballot will read in 2006. “The act that created us (independent airport authority) does give us some flexibility in terms of how the ballot language can be written,” Shafer-Payne says. “The act says that we should bring forward a site recommendation. But our attorneys have read that and have said, again, we have some latitude. So we are uncertain today as to how the language will be written. We do expect that the board will remove a number of sites and we will be down to a shorter list, if not down to just one site.”
Currently on the site selection program list there are nine prospective sites, five of which are military bases.
However, says Shafer-Payne, in November 2003, the authority board passed a resolution stating that the site selection team would not study any military installation until the completion of the base realignment and closure process.
“We have adhered to that and we will receive further direction from our board this November as how to proceed with the military sites,” she says.