Marine Colonel: Calif. Airport Board Reaching Beyond its Authority

Jan. 31--ESCONDIDO ---- A regional Marine official charged Monday that the airport authority reached beyond the scope of its purpose in choosing to examine military bases as potential sites for an international airport after they survived a recent round of base closings.

Col. Sonny Liston, deputy commander for Marine Corps Installations West, which represents seven west coast Marine bases, expressed a "sense of frustration" with the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority for keeping area bases on its list of nine candidate sites after the 2005 base realignment and closure process, or BRAC, wrapped up last fall.

Miramar Marine Corps Air Station, Camp Pendleton and North Island Naval Air Station remain on the list of possible airport locations.

Liston made the comments in a meeting Monday morning with the editorial board of the North County Times about the military's concerns about the growing number of civilian activities that are encroaching on area bases.

The authority has yet to choose a site for a new international airport. Its board is expected to name a preference for handling San Diego County's long-term air travel needs by June and place that choice on the November ballot for a nonbinding vote of county residents.

A similar advisory vote was held in 1994, when a bare majority expressed a preference for Miramar. But like that vote, Liston said nothing would come of it if that should prove to be the choice again.

"I would tell the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority, 'You did a great job of putting it on the ballot. It's absolutely meaningless,'" he said.

Liston said the legislation that created the authority talks of studying bases that may become available through BRAC. But the 2005 round of closures came and went, and none of the three installations listed as airport candidates was named, he said.

"Why they are wasting their time, effort and energy studying possibilities that are literally not options is a mystery to me," Liston said.

Diana Lucero, spokeswoman for the airport authority in San Diego, said later Monday that state law does not limit the new-airport searchers to military installations freed up through the 2005 and earlier base-closing rounds.

"It doesn't give a date as to when they might become available," Lucero said. "Even though none were closed in the BRAC process (last year), we don't know what might happen in the future."

During the editorial board meeting, Liston spoke at length of the two sites identified by the authority at Miramar. One is the existing military air field; the other is on the base's undeveloped east end.

Liston said East Miramar could not house an airport because it is too close to mountains and military craft flying out of the base, and would present a danger to fast-flying airliners.

"Does anybody with half a ... nerve working in their brain actually think that that would work? I mean, seriously," he said. "That is the most ridiculous proposal that I've ever seen in my life."

Liston also said having military and commercial aircraft share the existing air field would be unworkable. For example, military jets could not repeatedly practice carrier landings in a tight space on the runway while jet airliners were taking off and landing nearby.

"If you had a commercial airport at Miramar, you would not be able to operate military aircraft out of that facility. It's that simple," Liston said. "We could land a helicopter once or twice. We would not be able to operate tactical jets and commercial airliners in the same air space."

Col. Michael Brooker, also of Marine Corps Installations West, said successful examples of joint use at other bases around the country occur in places where either military or commercial air traffic ---- or both ---- are light, and where military aircraft are about the same size as jet airliners.

That is not the case here, Brooker said.

Laura Thornton, community plans and liaison officer at Miramar, said Miramar annually handles 79,000 takeoffs and landings by airplanes and 32,000 arrivals and departures by helicopters.

Over at Lindbergh Field, the nation's busiest one-runway commercial airport, 220,000 takeoffs and landings are logged each year, Lucero said.

The number of passengers that pass through Lindbergh's gates reached 17.4 million last year, up 6.1 percent from 16.4 million in 2004, Lucero said. That was on top of 7.3 percent growth the year before, she said. Both increases substantially exceeded the authority's long-term forecasts built on the assumption of annual growth of 2.2 percent to 2.8 percent.

Liston said the authority, in his opinion, has failed to make the case that Lindbergh is running out of room and cannot handle the region's air travel needs long into the future.

Referring to the growth of the last two years, Lucero said, "I don't know how you could make a stronger case."

Other candidate sites include Campo, Borrego Springs, Imperial County, March Air Reserve Base near Riverside and Lindbergh Field, assuming a major expansion. The authority estimates it would cost $5 billion to $10 billion to build a new airport with two parallel runways.

Contact Dave Downey at (760) 740-5442 or ddowney@nctimes.com. To comment, visit nctimes.com.

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