"An airport, like a lot of big planning projects, becomes an emotional issue as much as a planning issue."
So says county Supervisor Ron Roberts, and he knows a little bit about airport discussions. As a member of the San Diego City Council in 1990, Roberts designed a plan to build a bi-national airport on the border with Mexico. It was one of the most original ideas to appear in the 50-year-old debate, but it drew the ire of some local leaders, determined to push their own airport sites through.
Up until this week, it seemed Roberts' plan was dead, like so many other proposals to solve San Diego's airport problems. Then on Monday a committee of the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority announced that it wants to investigate the possibility of building a cross-border airport terminal, giving American passengers access to Tijuana International Airport thereby relieving pressure at Lindbergh Field. The committee's interest is tentative, and unanswered field questions abound, but talk alone is certain to mark a revival of the controversies that plagued the suggestion of a shared airport with Mexico in the first place.
In a debate that's included suggestions to build a floating airport or a desert airport serviced by a maglev train, the focus has always been on site. But some now argue that the economic impact of an airport is far more important than where it's located. Simply stated, San Diego's air traffic directly affects the kinds of jobs offered in San Diego and whether or not anyone can afford to live here.
Back in 1988, the Port of San Diego and the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) conducted a study on Lindbergh Field and determined that 2006 would be when the airport reached its capacity. At the time, many potential solutions to the problem were offered. One familiar-sounding plan was to build a civilian airport at Miramar, but the Navy eventually rejected that idea. Other suggestions ranged from the impractical to the strange.
"One weird proposal in the '80s," remembers Congressman Bob Filner, then a member of the San Diego City Council, "someone suggested that we should have planes land at Lindbergh Field and take off at North Island. No one ever suggested how you get between the two." Another suggestion cited most often on the list of the outlandish is the idea of a floating airport-dubbed "fantasy island" by some legislators-off the coast of Point Loma. The floating-airport plan was logistically ludicrous, and, according to Ron Roberts, "would have cost more than any five airports ever built." Still, the reason the floating airport was suggested points to the fundamental problem in building an airport: Airports take up lots of land that no one wants them to have.
The fight over landscape
"The biggest issue has always been site," says SANDAG economist Marnie Cox. In an advisory vote 10 years ago, "we had 50 percent of the people saying they did want an airport and 50 percent saying they did not want an airport." With a split down the middle, SANDAG was probably ready to throw up its hands, but Cox thinks local leaders had something to do with the half-and-half response. "It's no wonder," he says, "when you have elected officials on both sides of the issue representing their constituency. There just appears to be no consensus in the region about a site for an airport."
County Supervisor Greg Cox, who was the mayor of Chula Vista in 1990, agrees with that point. "I don't care whether you're talking about a landfill, an airport, a sewage-treatment plant or even a power plant, none of these are easy to site," he says.
Because of this, elected officials have for years stood in the way of any action on the airport issue. It happened in the '80s and '90s, and it appears to be happening again. "It's a land-use decision," Marnie Cox argues. "If it's a land-use decision, you will have to go through the local jurisdictions because they are the ones with land-use power." Elected officials make these decisions, and their plaintive response to the airport debate has always been to say, "Build it somewhere else!"
Consider Ron Roberts' TwinPorts plan, of which Bob Filner was a vehement opponent. Out of the many suggestions that have appeared throughout the airport debates, it stands out for its inclusion of Mexico in a discussion that otherwise seems to ignore the country 15 miles to the south. In many respects, the TwinPorts plan is indicative of San Diego's airport debates: Enormous amounts of energy and expense were invested in it, but a few public officials managed to kill it.
A different kind of suggestion
On the surface, TwinPorts appeared idealistic, even radical. It involved building an international airport just west of the 3,572-foot-tall Otay Mountain. Directly on the border, the new airport would have had a runway paralleling the runway at Tijuana's Rodriguez Field. The two airports would have functioned as one giant, international airport, sharing an air-traffic control tower and a taxiway between their two runways. Thus, passengers could land in Mexico and taxi to terminals in the United States. This would have technically tied the two countries together in an unprecedented way, and the fact that the suggestion was offered and taken seriously seems to imply a heyday in San Diego's attitude toward Mexico in an era before 9/11 and the Minutemen.
"Of all the things that I've ever worked on that didn't happen, probably most disappointing would be the TwinPorts plan, because I think the future of this community is going to be impacted greatly," Roberts said.
The plan was supported by the local pilots association, the Chamber of Commerce, most of the San Diego City Council and even the mayor. In May of 1990, for instance, Roberts boldly proclaimed in a Los Angeles Times opinion piece, "There is nothing more powerful than a good idea. No matter how many times it appears defeated, a good idea will rebound, just by force of its veracity. Such is the case with the idea of a binational airport on the United States-Mexico border on Otay Mesa. Defeated in the 1970s, the idea once again is being considered as an alternative to Lindbergh Field, our hemmed-in, overburdened, downtown airport."
Roberts' idea was defeated, however, in part because there were other officials in the early '90s who didn't take to the plan, including Congressman Brian Bilbray, then a county supervisor, and Filner, who was a member of the San Diego City Council at the time. Filner declared to the L.A. Times in 1991, "People will be landing on Mars before they land on [a new airport at] Otay Mesa."
Of course, Filner's criticism could also be leveled at his own opposition to the plan, however well-intentioned he may have been. The development of an airport in Otay Mesa would have landed it squarely in Filner's district, not to mention Bilbray's district as county supervisor, and they had plans of their own for developing the area, including up to 18,000 housing units.
When asked about the TwinPorts plan now, Filner's response is succinct and direct: "I killed it."
Filner represented the most serious opposition to the TwinPorts plan, and his opinion hasn't softened much in the intervening 15 years. "It was just so ridiculous," he says. "I felt that even to debate it was stupid."
Filner cites two problems with TwinPorts: "One, there's no clearance and the amount of space that you would need, the distance in front of the mountains, made it impossible. Two, equally damning, would be the fact that you would have a shared airport with Mexico. Our airports around the nation are all interconnected. Can you imagine an airport that's half under the control of Mexico? Nobody would allow it to happen."
The ramifications of building a bi-national airport are weighty, and were it to happen in the early '90s, the Mexican government and the U.S. government (including the Department of Defense) and San Diegans all had to be convinced that the idea was a good one. Still, Roberts remains entirely convinced that the plan would have worked.
"Some things that I imagined might be a problem, we quickly learned weren't problems," he argues. "The mountain would not have been a problem because if you look at the angle of Rodriguez field, it avoids the mountain and that would have been the advantage." Also, for those concerned about the international jurisdiction over air traffic, Roberts asserts there was no problem there, either: "If you land at Rodriguez field, a lot of people don't realize you come in at the east, and you fly out of the west, crossing over the United States' border. People at the time were saying, "How can we cross their border to land?' and we said, "Guess what, that's done every day of the week.'"
Among some members of the San Diego City Council there was a kind of intoxicated optimism surrounding the whole idea. There were plans, for instance, to build the aforementioned 18,000 residential housing units in the Otay Mesa area, and the new airport would have made this largely unattractive to home buyers. In response, then-Chamber of Commerce spokesman Bob Hudson, arguing in favor of an airport option away from Lindbergh, stated that technology could reduce the noise impact on the future residents of Otay Mesa. "In 10 years," he said, "we may have aircraft that can take off in 500 feet that make no more noise than a skateboard going by."
Thankfully, no public official has yet invoked the quiet-aircraft-of-the-future argument in our current round of debates over where to site a new airport, but there are other themes that have come back, including the NIMBYism that clouds the whole discussion.
Filner believes that Roberts' original suggestion was made half-sincerely to appease his constituents in Point Loma, who had been long plagued by airport noise and pollution. Filner claims that the plan "first arose as a political throwaway from Roberts. Since his district was Point Loma, he had a problem with [Lindbergh Field], so they came up with this idea of TwinPorts and somehow it got a life of its own."
This is a suggestion that makes Roberts bristle. "We were dead serious, but Bob Filner was one of the political obstacles," he argues. "I met personally with the president of Mexico on two occasions, and I met with major cabinet officials." Roberts also consulted with engineers at Boeing and officials at the Department of Defense.
In Roberts's opinion, Filner and Bilbray's opposition was not well-founded: "We had people who were saying, "Woe is us. You're going to ruin the South Bay.' This was at a time, and this is true today, where most job creation in San Diego was north of Highway 8. We had a whole series of people who were trying to be populists in their area, but I think they were selling their communities short." Roberts is right to emphasize economic development, but it may be a simplification to look at jobs created directly by an airport itself, which has the capacity to influence job growth and wages within probably 100 miles of its site. Overall, the economic reasons for an airport in San Diego are important to consider, but these reasons may surprise you.
According to SANDAG's Marnie Cox, the issue has more to do with global markets and moving products than with moving people. In a 1996 study of the shipment of goods in California, SANDAG's analysts looked at the value of goods being shipped by air. They discovered that less than 1 percent of the weight of all goods shipped was being shipped by air (as opposed to trains, trucks and ships). However, that less-than-1-percent made up roughly 60 percent of the value of all goods shipped. Thus, if you want to attract high-value commodities to your area, air services are the way to go. This is the reason that Silicon Valley has invested heavily in its airport. This is also why Cox doesn't particularly worry about where in the region the airport will be located as long as local businesses have access to air service. As Cox puts it, the more high-value goods produced in your area, the better the job market, which means higher wages and benefits for workers. In short, "value is important because the value of the product relates directly back to its wages and salaries," he said.
Capitalizing on those high-value, low-weight products, SANDAG argued, made good economic sense for San Diego, which had been transitioning to just such an economy in the late '90s and which was now ready to participate in the global economy. After its emergence from a recession in 1996, San Diego's business community was becoming more focused around biotech companies like Pfizer, Amylin and Genentech, and wireless companies like the ubiquitous Qualcomm. "We now had worldwide consumption like the wireless industry and biotechnology," says Cox. "With that change came the need to access world markets and take advantage of the global market process going on at the time."
In simple terms, air service is less about attracting people to San Diego and more about wooing companies with high-value goods. For those who fear the airport will attract more immigrants to San Diego, which will mean more competition for housing space, the airport "is not going to add more people," Cox argues. "We're still going to grow by a million people over the next 30 years." Instead, an airport solution is necessary for San Diego because "we can't afford not to have quality job growth," says Cox. "We need our wages and salaries to keep up with the cost of living in this region, which is extremely high."
Levels of support
This is, fundamentally, why the discussion always seems to shape up in the way that it has: Elected officials defending their constituents' desires to be far from an airport on one side and members of the business community pushing for an airport solution on the other. Marnie Cox has noticed exactly this problem in our current airport debate. "It looks like it's headed towards a problem where you have elected officials lined up on one side with land-use control and potentially some of the business groups lining up on the other side because they think it would be beneficial economically to have a solution," offers Cox.
In this climate, it's difficult to find a decision that will please even a small majority. The position of Supervisor Greg Cox, whose district includes both the area around Lindbergh Field and the South Bay, exemplifies the issue. "The southern portion of my district is probably happy with Miramar or Lindbergh Field," he said. "Of course, the other part of my district is in Ocean Beach or even Lindbergh and they would probably prefer Miramar." Beyond that, he says, "I suspect if you started drawing concentric circles around Miramar, the level of support for Miramar as an alternative would go up substantially the further away you get from there."
All told, San Diego's current political climate is entirely different from the state of affairs 15 years ago, and yet the airport debate sounds almost exactly the same. Newspaper editorials decry one plan over another, the specter of Miramar returns and, aside from those public officials hedging their bets by refusing to say anything, most everyone else is totally divided.
As for Ron Roberts, prior to Monday's development, he said he favors discussions with the Navy. "At some point, on one of the Navy bases, there has to be an agreement," he believes, "There is no solution without the Navy." But many doubt whether this agreement will ever happen, and the history of such discussions is not promising.
In fact, in the early '90s, Miramar was the only other idea that was seriously considered. The TwinPorts plan began to fade away at the end of 1991, when the Mexican government signaled its own waning interest, but the Miramar plan itself died in 1994, when then Mayor Susan Golding and former Congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham encouraged the Marines to take over the spot, in spite of a countywide vote in favor of moving the airport to Miramar in 1994, a story that sounds oddly familiar.
Of course, the current problems with Miramar are the same as they've always been. "We have very little control over that outcome," says Marnie Cox. "Even if the advisory vote"-on the upcoming November ballot-"goes that way, there are so many other obstacles in the way of moving it to Miramar at this point that we couldn't even begin the process. So the deck is really stacked against that direction."
Thus, for those optimistic about the San Diego Regional Airport Authority's current drive to build a new airport, the history of similar efforts in San Diego is uninspiring. Filner puts the issue in perspective, stating that "every study over the last 35 years has come to the conclusion that only two places have enough space for an airport: Miramar and Imperial County. Imperial County is too far and Miramar had the Navy. All of the studies kept repeating the same thing, and we've been paying millions and millions for the same answer."
Building an airport in the Imperial County desert, 100 miles from downtown San Diego, continues to be actively discussed by the Airport Authority, but Filner worries that his own suggestion for a desert airport connected to the city by a high-speed railway is being relegated to a similar category as past suggestions. "Now, they're putting my suggestion for an Imperial Valley airport in that crazy category," he says. Indeed, Roberts concludes, "The desert airport is only one step removed from the floating airport, in terms of practicality."
Counters Filner: "A hundred miles sounds like a long ways away, but if you get there in 20 minutes, what's the difference? And new rail technology allows that to happen." Additionally, Filner believes the benefits from a high-speed rail line and the airport outweigh the costs of building both. "If connecting the airport was the only thing the high-speed rail did, it would be worth it," he says, "but you can also begin to solve housing problems, you can begin to solve freight problems, you can bring tourists in from Arizona without cars. Even with the heavy cost, if you solve four problems at once, it's still worth it."
The Imperial County airport has withstood Airport Authority elimination rounds and now stands among two or three other sites still being considered. Another suggestion still being actively considered is the development of an existing airport in Riverside, but for some, "the San Diego Airport of Riverside" sounds a little too much like the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.
SANDAG's Cox supports the Riverside airport idea for the benefits it will bring to San Diego's business community. On the other side, most San Diegans seem less than enthused about sites in the desert or Riverside. Supervisor Cox agrees that his constituents won't be excited about having to drive 90 miles to reach an airport. "I don't think the San Diego populace is prepared to give up a site in San Diego County for a site outside of the county," he says bluntly.
Ultimately, politicians can't be blamed for attempting to defend the interests of their constituents, who invariably do not want to live next to an airport. With the Airport Authority reassessing aspects of the TwinPorts plan, some may once again see it as an attempt to please voters, this time in Miramar instead of Point Loma. Even with the Airport Authority's nod, however, the binational airport plan doesn't have the momentum it had last time around. Roberts, wishing it had worked in the early '90s, doesn't think the airport could be built today because of the extensive development in Otay Mesa.
"With that plan, it was really looking ahead in a pretty significant way," Roberts says. "I thought it was something that could serve San Diego and serve Tijuana for years and be the center of a renaissance of industrial development and job creation for both communities."
Perhaps it looked too far ahead, as California's relations with Mexico and election-year rhetoric are dominated by the immigration discussion, and San Diego's news reports are filled with stories about subterranean border tunnels. In such an environment, a shared airport with Tijuana continues to be an unlikely prospect for solving our air traffic problems. Instead, San Diego appears ready to once again look askance at the military, which still holds all of the cards in this 50-year-old game.