Committee: Drop North County From Airport Search

Feb. 14--SAN DIEGO -- North County likely will be scratched as a site for a supplemental airport to San Diego's Lindbergh Field if an advisory committee gets its way.

A four-member panel of the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority voted unanimously Monday to recommend dropping North County from further consideration.

The recommendation will go to the full, nine-member authority board later this month. At that session, board member Robert Maxwell of Oceanside said he will try to revive the idea.

The authority is studying whether to expand Lindbergh, the nation's busiest single-runway metropolitan airport, or build a new airport. Lindbergh is projected to be out of room to handle increased demand within about 15 years.

Airport officials will take that discussion to Washington this week. On Thursday, a contingent from the authority is slated to meet with an assistant secretary of the Navy in Washington to review the status of talks with the military on the potential airport sites on three county bases.

In examining North County for a possible supplemental airport, the authority looked at two 1,600-acre sites: one on the eastern edge of the 23,000-acre Rancho Guejito property east of Escondido, the second about three miles east of Interstate 15 on a plateau above the Welk Resort.

Monday's vote came after a consultant said that supplemental airport costs are virtually equal to those demanded by a full-size airport and that those now in a handful in metropolitan areas around the country take decades to become financially viable.

The consultant, Bob Hazel of the airport planning firm Eclat Consulting, concluded that even with forecast population growth and increased airline passenger demand, a supplemental airport anywhere in the county would not be viable.

"Secondary airports take years to become successful," Hazel said during the planning committee meeting in San Diego. "You're competing in a world economy with expectations that there will be an airport close to the major business and population center."

Hazel also pointed out that 54 percent of passengers that fly into San Diego are tourists, with the majority staying in the city, another concern for airlines and passengers.

Building a supplemental airport would be resisted by the airlines and could cost as much as $4 billion, he said. A supplemental airport also would only generate about 2 million passengers a year, compared with the more than 17 million that passed through Lindbergh last year, he said.

The authority is studying sites in Imperial County or at Campo in southeastern San Diego County. It also is studying three county military bases ---- Camp Pendleton, North Island Naval Air Station and Miramar Marine Corps Air Station ---- for shared use or new airport construction.

A fourth military site, the Marine Corps Recruit Depot immediately adjacent to Lindbergh, was added to the mix Monday at the request of authority board member Mary Sessom. The authority staff was directed to report on how acquisition of the 388-acre depot could answer the airport's expansion needs.

Last year, a nationwide base closure commission looked at the depot for possible closure but opted to leave it open after listening to arguments from Marine Corps brass. The depot is the West Coast training center for Marine Corps recruits.

After having studied more than 30 potential new airport sites, a Lindbergh expansion appears to be gaining momentum with some authority board members as increasing doubts are expressed about the viability of shared use on a base. It also would be cheaper than the estimated $17 billion to $19 billion costs and distances of an airport in Imperial County or at Campo.

Board member William Lynch summed up that sentiment.

"Downtown is a vital center for this region," Lynch said. "People want convenience."

But while he and Sessom are making more public statements in support of a Lindbergh expansion, board member Paul Nieto said he does not believe Lindbergh expansion can ever meet the estimated 35 million-passenger demand San Diego is forecast to have by the year 2030.

Thursday's meeting in Washington came about after U.S. Rep. Susan Davis, D-San Diego, sent a letter late last month to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld asking for the Pentagon's view of shared use. Davis is a member of the House Armed Services Committee.

Her letter also asks for the Defense Department's view on the value of Camp Pendleton, North Island and Miramar to the nation's defense. The letter was passed down to the assistant secretary for the Navy, who is expected to prepare a report for Rumsfeld.

The authority is bound by state law to come up with a recommendation to expand Lindbergh or build a new airport this year. The state Legislature created the agency in 2003 to take over operation of Lindbergh from the Unified Port District of San Diego and plan for the region's future airline travel and cargo needs.

Whatever it decides this spring will go before county voters in the form of a nonbinding advisory vote in November in what will be one of the most important votes in decades, according to authority board Chairman Joe Craver.

"It will be one of this generation's greatest public policy decisions," Craver said during his "state of the authority" address following Monday's committee meeting. Craver's speech outlined what the authority has done in the last year, heaping particular praise on its staff.

A new airport would be built with a combination of federal grants and authority-issued bonds repaid through airport revenues.

The site selection issue next lands in North County. On Wednesday, the authority is sponsoring a business luncheon airport forum from 11:30 a.m. until 1:45 p.m. at the Lake San Marcos Resort at Country Club, 1025 La Bonita Drive.

Registration for that event moderated by North County Times editor Kent Davy costs $20 for non-North County Chamber of Commerce members. For more information, call (619) 400-2869.

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