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Federal transportation official visits SD for airport discussion

San Diegans frustrated by the endless debate over where to locate a new airport might be heartened that a federal transportation official is taking an interest in the issue. The chair of the Federal Transportation Department's aviation subcommittee, Congressman John Mica, came to town to chair a roundtable on the question. But anyone hoping for some guidance from above, came away empty handed. KPBS reporter Alison St John has more.

Congressman Mica started the roundtable by putting the matter of San Diego's airport in a national context.

MICA: "The steps that you decide to take or not take will impact our entire national airspace system in which we at the federal level have a vested interest."

The federal government will likely invest billions of dollars in any new airport built in San Diego. But Mica said his presence shouldn't be seen as a sign that he supports any particular plan, and he was careful to avoid taking sides on the debate over whether military bases should be included in possible sites.

Congressman Bob Filner was the only San Diego federal elected official present at the roundtable. Filner joked about the face off between the military representatives and the airport authority, who were seated on opposite sides of the table.

FILNER: "We just have to keep out of the line of fire and we'll be fine."

Filner is in rare agreement with Congressman Duncan Hunter on this issue. He opposes the options of Miramar, North Island or Camp Pendleton as a new commercial airport.

Presenting the by-now familiar arguments for why the bases shouldn't even be considered, Rear Admiral Len Hering said San Diego is home to a superbly positioned system of military installations.

HERING: "Providing the best training opportunities in the free world, it is a key foundation of our national security strategy. It would be nearly impossible to replicate it anywhere else on the face of the earth."

The idea of joint use was dismissed as a safety hazard to both commercial and military air traffic.

Making sure no one could accuse the Airport Authority of disrespecting the military chairman Jo Craver, spoke of the rock solid support of their vital role.

CRAVER: "I'd like to state for the record here that the airport authority is fully supporting of the military's sacred mission to provide for the national defense."

However Airport Authority board member Paul Nieto stood firm on the mandate given to the board to study all the options.

NIETO: "But I think it's very important in this process of elimination that we are very thorough, I think it does everyone a disservice if we stop short."

Nieto said the board will finish its feasibility study of possible joint use of military bases before August. That's the deadline to put airport options on the November ballot.

John Chalker, a member of the California Transportation Commission, put a longer term context on the issue, saying the objections to using military bases are short sighted.

CHALKER: "Everyone must understand that a decision made today wont take effect tomorrow morning it wont take effect for at least 15 years and there could be a significant changes in the military in our region in this timeframe."

Four of the possible airport sites being studied by the Airport Authority are on military bases and four out in the desert east of San Diego. The San Diego Association of Governments completed a study this week of the feasibility of building a high speed train out to an airport site 100 miles away in Imperial County. Gary Gallegos of SANDAG announced the conclusions.

GALLEGOS: "We do think it's feasible, but it comes at a pretty expensive price tag of $15 to $20 billion."

To Congressman Bob Filner this is not an insurmountable obstacle. .. Filner accuses the airport Authority of not seriously considering the option of an airport in Imperial County, which, unlike any other area, has voted in favor of the idea.

FILNER: "That's why I'm proposing at least looking fairly at an east west connection so it's not just the airport it's a broad question of regional economic importance."

Filner says a high speed rail line could strengthen the port of San Diego, bring tourists from Arizona and most importantly help with the problem transporting thousands of people who are priced out of the San Diego housing market and moving east.

FILNER: "If we can deal with all those and someone tells me it's costing 20 billion, I'll say, Hey, that's cheap!"

Maybe it's also the easy way out of facing a no-win political condundrum.
In his concluding comments, Chairman Mica of the federal aviation committee stayed safely above the fray and refused to be drawn into taking sides.

MICA: "There's a host of things to consider from today's discussion, I cant influence the decisions here other than ask you all to cooperate and ask you to cooperate and try to reach some decisions.. I wish you well."

So, San Diegans can't hope for someone in Washington to point the way. It's still up to the community to consider all the options and come up with a direction to move ahead on the airport dilemma. Alison St John, KPBS News.

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