"It's no coincidence that in no known language does the phrase "As pretty as an airport' appear." -Douglas Adams, The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul
Choosing a new regional airport site for San Diego certainly isn't a beauty contest. And Miss Congeniality, from the looks of things, might as well not even bother showing up.
So, are San Diego's power brokers really interested in finding some relatively flat land, far enough away from mountains and cranky NIMBYs, that could be massaged into the region's airport of the future? Or are the high-paid executives of the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority simply going through the motions?
Last week, the authority did make a move, whittling down to six a list that at one point included 32 potential airport sites from the Mexico border to northern Riverside County. But at the insistence of one board member, an expanded Lindbergh Field was also tossed into the fray.
Wasn't this supposed to be all about replacing the diminutive Lindbergh? Well, apparently if you talk enough about adding a runway to the bayfront facility, it becomes a new concept-except for those who have been through this drill too many times in the last 30 years.
"They have selected Lindbergh," one political ballplayer and long-time airport observer close to the dealings told CityBeat, "but are wrestling with how to announce it and still justify the big salaries and added expenses [the authority] has cost San Diegans."
The observer noted that the authority is in the midst of discussions with the San Diego Unified Port District, the airport's previous landlord, about nabbing property surrounding Lindbergh-including property now inhabited by the U.S. Marines to the west as well as land once dominated by defense contractors General Dynamics and Teledyne Ryan. But being state tidelands, the land grab won't be easy.
The authority is trying to get the state Lands Commission to rewrite its laws to allow the authority to take title to the former GenDyn and Ryan sites, which would be critical land acquisitions if the authority decides to ask voters in November 2006 to move ahead with a Lindbergh expansion.
Previous studies have shown that a major obstacle to such a plan will be a maxed-out Harbor Drive, which means that traffic will have to be diverted east to Pacific Highway. The next problem will be finding adequate cargo storage space, which explains the Airport Authority's desire the to take full title of the Marine Corps Recruit Depot and the GenDyn properties.
"They need that land to expand the airport," the observer said. "What is terribly funny is, they don't own the land the airport is on, and they forgot to throw that in the mix. The thinking is the airport is leased to them for $1 a year-so it's off their radar-meanwhile GenDyn costs them something like $6 million a year [to lease] and rises to $8.6 million in two years. So this is hurting cash flow."
A cash-flow problem for an outfit that just got up and running nine months ago with $75 million in cash from the port? That's a real comfort, considering this is the bunch that's supposed to lead us to the airport of the 21st century.
So, for two years consultants will be making money hand over fist analyzing potential airport sites that, practically speaking, show little potential. Of the new sites, five of the six are military installations-Camp Pendleton, North Island Naval Air Station, March Air Force Base in Riverside County, Miramar Marine Corps Air Station and East Miramar. The other site, located in the Imperial County desert, seems dead on arrival without the addition of an overly expensive high-speed rail system to get passengers out there.
The military sites seem easy choices because, in the end, it will be the military that decides if any of those sites will be made available when the Defense Department holds its next round of base-closure discussions come 2005. If the Defense Department nixes all those choices, San Diegans will be left with the whoppingly expensive desert scenario or-you guessed it-an expanded Lindbergh Field.
Despite support from a 32-member advisory board and the authority's own staff, a long-debated cross-border terminal linked to Tijuana International Airport will not be an option. San Diego Councilman Ralphie Inzunza, who also sits on the authority board, made sure of that. He called the proposal "ridiculous" and "arrogant," suggesting that people on this side of the border shouldn't be talking about an airport expansion that will affect another country. He also lives in the area, but we wouldn't dare suggest that Inzunza makes decisions that first benefit him.
But it is strange that a project that only a little more than a year ago was destined to be the premiere showcase of border cooperation is now completely, utterly dead. Anybody remember when presidents George W. Bush and Vicente Fox hitched up their cowboy boots to meet last year to talk about something called "Partnership for Prosperity"?
"Oh, it's dead," lamented Ralph Nieders, who spent 12 years trying to build consensus on a cross-border terminal that would feed into the Tijuana airport. But the recession, 9/11 and the lack of impetus from the Spanish owners of Mexico's airports were plenty of straws that broke the plan's back.
But if it was dead, why was it included as a potential replacement for Lindbergh Field?
"I don't know what their agenda was as far as including Tijuana as an alternative for Lindbergh, but it just wasn't doable," said Nieders, who served on the public advisory board but felt largely ignored. "I don't know why we spent the money and why we're spending more money when we already know the military is against their bases being shut down. To study each of the sites is going to cost a half a million to a million dollars. For what?
"It's a joke."
Know any more such jokes? Tell themto us: spincycle@SDcitybeat.com.