San Diego Business Journal

Spurred by opposition to a plan for short-term improvements to Lindbergh Field, the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority will move ahead with the plan while it considers a radical makeover, moving the existing passenger terminals to the north side, says Chairman Alan Bersin.

Bersin, who leads the agency that manages San Diego International Airport, says such a renovation would require obtaining property now in the hands of the U.S. Marine Corps and the San Diego Unified Port District and take years and many millions of dollars to accomplish. In the meantime, congestion at Lindbergh is reaching critical proportions, and a short-term solution is necessary.

"We need to proceed with the 10 gates and need to do that as originally envisioned," Bersin said.

The airport authority's plan, dubbed as Phase I and in the works for several years, calls for adding 10 gates to the western terminal to bring the total to 51 gates; a possible construction of a five-story parking garage with 3,700 spaces; and creating an overnight parking area for jets that must be grounded because of an evening noise curfew.

Last year, the airport authority said the estimated cost for the project was $650 million. Last week, Bersin said the estimate ranges from $600 million to $700 million.

In recent weeks, the airport authority's plan has come under fire from Mayor Jerry Sanders and Steve Peace, a former state senator now working as an adviser to San Diego Padres owner John Moores.

They advocate a far more comprehensive approach to solving Lindbergh's congestion and near-capacity condition by relocating all three of the passenger terminals to the north side of the airport, closer to Interstate 5.

Reducing Congestion

Their plan would also involve building more streamlined freeway offramps, as well as a nearby mass transit center for buses and trolleys, which would remove traffic from surface streets.

Following a Feb. 8 joint meeting of the airport authority and the San Diego Association of Governments, a regional planning agency, Sanders said the city would support the current airport expansion plan as long as the authority engages in longer-term planning to maximize Lindbergh Field's potential during the next 30 years.

The agencies are now hammering out a legal document that's expected to go before Sandag's board this month. The agreement would specifically grant the agencies the right to sue the authority if the long-range planning process for Lindbergh doesn't take place.

Sanders spokesman Fred Sainz said the current airport improvement plan is "perfectly acceptable" as long as long-term planning for the airport takes place.

Until recently, Sanders had not taken any position regarding the Lindbergh Field improvements, and was neutral on the issue of moving the airport to Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, a plan voters rejected in November 2006.

Asked why Sanders decided to weigh in now, Sainz said the issue is ripe. "There's nothing like a deadline to get things done," he said.

Bersin downplays the apparent conflict between the city and the airport agency, and asserts that the parties, including representatives of Moores, have been talking about the issue for months.

The Timeline

Bersin says his nine-member board will certify the short-term plan's environmental impact report in March or April. Following that, construction would begin in about 18 months. If, during that period, some breakthrough occurred in terms of property acquisition, the airport authority "would be prepared to make adjustments," Bersin said.

The authority began working on the airport's Phase I short-term improvement plan about the same time it undertook a search for a future airport site for San Diego beginning in 2003. That process culminated in the selection of Miramar as the best site for a new regional airport.

After that decision, the airport authority board resumed work on the Phase I improvements, attempting to address increasing congestion both inside the facility and on its connecting roads.

The busiest single-runway airport in the nation, Lindbergh Field handled more than 18.4 million passengers last year , its highest total ever , up from about 17.5 million in the prior year. The facility is expected to reach capacity sometime between 2015 and 2022, according to airport studies.

The Phase I improvements do not preclude the authority from incorporating additional concepts such as a mass transit center, or even moving the terminals to the north side, Bersin says.

But in order to get the transit hub built, agreements have to be struck with the Marine Corps Recruit Depot north of the airport, the city of San Diego and the county of San Diego, he says.

Phil Thalheimer, president of San Diego Flight Training International at Montgomery Field, says he agrees with Sanders that the airport authority should try to find some way to make use of the space on the north side of the airport and remove increasing traffic from Harbor Drive.

"From my perspective, we should exhaust all opportunities to (relocate the terminals) on the north side," he said. "From a purely logical point of view, having this on the north side makes more sense."