Directly contradicting senior Pentagon officials' views, a new report analyzing the region's future airport options states that joint use of Miramar Marine Corps Air Station can be accomplished with no "unacceptable interference" to the military mission of the base, defense readiness or civilian passenger safety.
Thella F. Bowens, San Diego County Regional Airport Authority president and CEO, said the assurances from an aviation consulting team, released yesterday, reflect "a methodical and thorough process" of analysis and comparison never attempted in 50 years of debate over the need for a new or expanded airport.
By keeping Miramar and, to a lesser extent, Camp Pendleton as options, the report drew immediate derision from local military officials.
An unsigned statement issued while the report was still being examined said, "This failure demonstrates that those who prepared the report have no grasp of how the military operates to protect public safety while accomplishing its national defense mission."
Bowens, in a briefing to reporters, said the agency was obligated to consider military-base options under the legislation that created the agency and assigned it to take over the site-selection project in 2003.
She said the military's opposition becomes one more issue for the nine-member board to balance against other considerations as it gears up for a June 5 vote to select one of five options to meet the region's air transportation needs.
Besides Miramar and Camp Pendleton, the board is reviewing prospects for joint use of North Island Naval Air Station -- a concept in which Lindbergh Field would remain open and connected to Coronado by a $2 billion underground tunnel -- along with civilian sites in East County's Boulevard and the Yuha Desert in Imperial County. Remaining at single-runway Lindbergh would leave the region unable to fully meet demand after 2020 and unable to handle the industry's largest aircraft, in the view of the agency staff and consultants.
Three board members oppose all of the military options, saying they accept the idea that "no means no."
The views of the other six range from noncommittal to that of executive board member William Lynch, who said, "We have no place else to go ... for this region except to Miramar."
The 1,900 pages of analysis on the military sites and a 102-page "decision document" on the five sites represent the final major piece of information delivered by the consultants, Ricondo & Associates. The team had been paid more than $8 million through February for its work and that of two dozen subcontractors.
Gregory Wellman, associate vice president of Ricondo, said the consultants did not try to make a point-by-point rebuttal to issues raised by the military.
"We took their (joint-use) criteria," Wellman said. "We evaluated each of the installations based on the operating procedures that we established and ... the information that we were provided by the installations themselves or that (was) publicly available."
A joint operation at Miramar, with a two-runway civilian airport to replace Lindbergh Field, would require the Marines to move some of their training and facilities to other parts of the 23,000-acre base, yesterday's report said.
It supports the feasibility of joint use from what it calls "the best information publicly available."
Camp Pendleton could be made suitable for joint use, although there would be heavy environmental impacts and the location would be "far from ideal" for San Diego travelers and airlines, the report stated.
Operations at North Island would be hampered by "unacceptable" aircraft delays during certain crosswind conditions. The consultants acknowledged that unlike at Miramar, joint use of North Island "would introduce some interference with the existing military mission," and crosswind conditions there could mean delays of up to 50 minutes for both military and civilian operations.
Bowens said the agency staff has decided not to make a specific recommendation to the board, but to let the members take the information and use it as they see fit.
That said, the report finds the fewest flaws in a Miramar operation. Miramar also would have the lowest estimated costs for the airlines of any new airport, the report said.
The Miramar elements of the comparison were bound to draw the greatest attention. Consultants have advised the agency that the Boulevard and Imperial County sites are too far from San Diego to be a success. North Island was considered doubtful because of the crosswinds issue; the new report said even North Island's financial viability "is somewhat questionable."
The report goes to a board committee Monday. The board's choice will go before voters Nov. 7.
The report said the biggest drawback to a joint operation at Miramar is the potential for excessive noise, mostly in Clairemont, but as part of an issue clouded by uncertainty.
Using today's Miramar operations as a reference point, the analysts said more than 15,000 people in nearly 6,500 residences would be affected by noise because of changes in airspace required to allow F-18 jets to conduct field carrier training practice.
That figure exceeds a cutoff of 10,000 used to discard other options earlier in the site-selection process. It results from a scenario, advanced by the consultants to make simultaneous operation by civilian aircraft and F-18s, in which the fighter jets would move to a civilian runway for field carrier training only.
It could wind up being an academic calculation, however. The airport agency's consultants said it is unclear how an expected transformation in the Marine Corps fleet and any phaseout of the F-18 would change operating procedures.
Meanwhile, challenging conventional wisdom on the issue, the consultants said their proposed runway configuration means excessive noise from commercial aircraft at Miramar would be virtually nil. Arriving flights would come in over eastern Miramar.
Construction costs for a civilian airport at Miramar would run about $5.9 billion, the report said. Environmental mitigation would add $900 million to $1.7 billion.
At the other sites, the combined construction and mitigation costs range from $7.9 billion at Camp Pendleton to more than $22 billion in Imperial County.
Some airport authority members have said they would consider paying all direct costs to the military associated with a joint-use concept.
Notwithstanding the military's opposition, it would take an act of Congress to allow joint use of Miramar, specifically prohibited under a piece of legislation in 1996. Under a provision in a defense authorization bill introduced by Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Alpine, the ban would be expanded to Camp Pendleton and North Island.
Beyond that hurdle, joint use is permitted under Department of Defense and Department of Transportation policy only when it does not compromise military response, security, readiness or safety.
The report acknowledges that some helicopter training on the base, and possibly a weapons storage area, would have to be moved.
The documents are online at www.san.org/authority/assp/index.asp
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