San Diego Considering Tijuana Deal

The San Diego County Regional Airport Authority is expressing interest in a proposed cross-border connection with Tijuana International Airport, a concept some say could relieve pressure on Lindbergh Field.

An authority board committee yesterday recommended the agency look into possible Federal Aviation Administration funding to study some of the economic questions involved in the idea.

Board members were concerned the move -- brought to the board by South County and other business leaders -- could be misinterpreted. It comes as the agency will ask voters in November to endorse the development of a civilian airport at the Marine Corps' Miramar Air Station to handle San Diego's long-term air transportation needs.

A cross-border terminal "is in no way a solution to our issues," said Strategic Planning Committee chairman Paul Nieto. It could, however, offer relief as passenger and cargo demands grow at Lindbergh Field, Nieto said. Backers said both sides of the border would benefit if air travelers could park on Otay Mesa, then pass through a secure facility on the border to catch a flight. By one estimate, more than 300,000 travelers a year already drive across the border to use the Tijuana airport.

The border terminal would become "another stimulus for economic growth" in Otay Mesa, said Cindy Gompper-Graves, executive director of the South County Economic Development Council. She said the facility would relieve pressure at Lindbergh Field, but is not intended as a replacement for a new airport.

Airport Authority officials say single-runway Lindbergh could reach its capacity in 10 to 15 years, although critics of the Miramar proposal argue there are steps the airport could take to manage the problem.

Mariano Escobedo, a regional liaison for the Baja California department of tourism, said his state government is "very much interested" in the proposed project. The private company that operates Tijuana International also supports the idea, he said.

Angela Shafer-Payne, vice president of strategic planning for the Airport Authority, said there is as yet no specific concept or even location for the proposed border facility, an idea that has surfaced repeatedly for more than a decade.

According to the authority, Tijuana International is served by seven passenger airlines -- none of them U.S. carriers -- with no U.S. destinations, although service to Oakland is scheduled to begin next month.

Officials said an economic analysis of the idea likely would include some assessment of "market demand," a prominent part of the process of elimination of other potential sites for a new airport that eventually led to selection of Miramar. The agency rejected the notion of a single-runway "supplemental" airport in North County, for instance, largely because analysts said the facility wouldn't attract enough airlines or passengers to pay off.

The U.S. State Department and Department of Homeland Security, among other agencies, would eventually have to sign on to the cross-border concept. Any approval process could take 10 years or more, said Gary L. Gallegos, executive director of the San Diego Association of Governments.

Gompper-Graves said the idea is resurfacing because of continuing and projected growth in South County, the presumed source of the most likely users of a cross-border terminal.

The airport committee's recommendation would have to go to the full board of directors before any further action.

An estimated cost for the study is expected to emerge later from the airport staff, should the full board agree. Staff also would be able to specify what kind of work the agency would want done in an FAA-backed study.

"There should be some sharing of this cost," with some entity from Mexico helping to pay for the study, Nieto said.

The FAA probably would not approve a study until later this year or early 2007, officials said.

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