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Airport Initiative Asks Voters to Look to the Future

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Aired 4/19/09

Of all the local issues voters will decide tomorrow, the one that affects most San Diegans is Prop A - the Airport Initiative. The measure specifically asks whether local officials should work to obtain a part of Marine Corp Air Station Miramar by the year 2020, for a commercial airport. Perhaps the most difficult aspect of this advisory vote is that it’s asking voters to think years into the future. KPBS reporter Alison St John has more.

Star trek’s transporter would solve San Diego’s airport dilemma -- allowing the 30 million people predicated to use Lindbergh Field by the year 2025 to simply beam up.  

But so far air travel is dependent on aircraft that need runways to take off and land, and San Diego is already the busiest single runway airport in the nation. Studies suggest if San Diego does not have a new airport in 30 years, it could cost the region more than 30,000 jobs and billions in overall personal income.  The Airport Authority has spent  more than three years researching all the alternatives for a new airport. Board member Bill Lynch sums up their conclusions.

Lynch: Miramar is not only the best site but it’s the only site. 

The ballot measure only asks for 3,000 acres of Miramar’s 23,000 acres. But that attempt to reach a compromise with the Marines doesn’t fly with the military.

Lt Colonel Duane Penny is responsible for safe handling of bombs and explosives on the base. He says operating commercial aircraft near military jets loading and unloading ordinance is out of the question.

Penny: They don’t have an answer on where they want us to do ordinance operation because it can’t be done in a joint use scenario.

Marine Major General Michael Lehnert doesn’t mince his words.

Lehnert: You can have a commercial airport or you can have a marine base but you can't have both, because it’s simply a function of physics. 

But the ballot measure isn’t asking about now, it’s asking about sharing the base by the year 2020. And the Marines are planning to replace their current fleet with a new fleet of planes called joint strike fighters. Airport authority board member Tony Young asked Major Lehnert about a report that laid out various options for where to locate the new fleet.

Young:  So that means it might not be here in 15 to 20 years. What I am saying sir is that we are evaluating all of the option but right now the intent is to place joint strike fighter at Miramar Sir.

The joint strike fighters might be noisier than the current jet fighters that roar in and out of Miramar. But the Marines are an integral part of the San Diego community and their neighbors says they don’t mind the“ sound of freedom.”

The Marines are also an integral part of San Diego’s business community - they contribute half a billion dollars a year to San Diego’s economy. The Chamber of Commerce was split over whether to support Prop A. But Craig Benedetto, chair of the committee that cast the deciding vote in favor, says it comes down to -- do you put a new commercial airport out in the desert in the future, or a military one?  

Benedetto: The bottom line is, do you inconvenience 3,000 people in military uniform at Miramar, or do you inconvenience the 2.5 million in San Diego.

San Diego’s Economic Development Corporation also came out in support of Prop A.  But Lani Lutar of the Taxpayers Association is skeptical of predictions that a new airport would add $6 billion a year to the region’s economy without raising taxes. 

Lutar: The ballot language does not clearly state what the precise costs for moving segments of Highway 163, interstate 15 at Miramar way will be nor will it identify who will be paying for the move and what funding source will come from.

While the economic arguments rage over possible future scenarios, the political die is cast. San Diego’s congressional delegation took the unprecedented step of holding a joint news conference to say all five of them support the military in this battle. Duncan Hunter announced he’d added language to a bill that the President signed.

Hunter: This ballgame is over, the president has signed this bill. It is the law that we can't use Miramar and will not use Miramar for a commercial airport.

Times change, of course, and that bill could always be overturned in the future.

But for now, virtually the only elected officials in the region willing to support the initiative are those on the Airport Authority. Tony Young sat through three years of board meetings looking at all the research that led up to the ballot measure

Young: I think I know this information as well as any elected officials and I felt it was important for me to show vision on this, cause it’s not about my political career or whoever’s political career, it’s about the future of San Diego. 

John Chalker, a strong supporter of the airport initiative, has a downtown office where planes cruise by his window at eye level every few minutes, on their way to land at Lindbergh.   Even though plans to expand the airport will go ahead whatever happens to the ballot measure, Chalker is sure that won’t be enough.

Chalker: I’ve often said that the real answer here would be if they could bring back Dick Tracey’s magnetic space coup from 30 years ago which was powered by magnetic levitation between the planets and could land on a dime.

Unfortunately even though Dick Tracey’s space coup was invented over 50 years ago, it won't be ready in time to save San Diegans from the dilemma about the future, that they face today. Alison St John, KPBS News.

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