September 15, 2006

Commentary:

Marines Engage Airport Authority as November Vote Approaches

By E.A. Barrera

They walked into the auditorium of Clairemont High School on a warm September 7 evening, looking ramrod straight and exuding the sort of quiet confidence Americans celebrate when they think of the United States Marine Corps. Led by Colonel Christopher E. O’Connor, the Commanding Officer of the Marine Corps Air Station at Miramar, a half dozen marines scattered the auditorium where the Clairemont Town Council was holding their monthly meeting - shaking hands and offering pleasantries like candidates running for office to the audience of more than fifty people.

The marines were there to campaign against Proposition A – the advisory ballot measure seeking public support for locating a future San Diego International Airport on 3,000 acres of federal land within the perimeter of the Miramar Marine base. Based on the reaction they got from the audience, Colonel O’Connor and his men scored a decisive win in this brief battle of the larger war concerning the future of Miramar and San Diego’s airport needs.

The Clairemont Town Council voted overwhelmingly to support the Marines’ position that a new civilian airport should not be located on the property within the base. Despite arguments by San Diego County Regional Airport Authority (SDCRAA) chairman Joseph Craver that Lindbergh Field was too small to meet future needs, and by 2030 would become incapable of handling the amount of traffic and commerce volume coming into San Diego; the audience could not be swayed.

“This is about military readiness. We are at war and our forces need a place to train,” said O’Connor to loud applause from the audience. “Miramar offers us inter-operability with the Navy and that allows us to maintain strategic flexibility for both training purposes and when the need arises to respond to an actual emergency.”

On June 5, the San SDCRAA formally recommended that a little over 3,000 acres of Miramar’s 23,000 acre location be utilized for a new civilian airport to replace Lindbergh Field. Lindbergh Field is currently a single runway airport where both incoming and exiting flights must use the same runway. Most major airports have at least two runways, with some, such as John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York maintaining two pairs of parallel runways.

JFK utilizes 4,930 acres, including 880 acres in the Central Terminal Area. The airport has more than 30 miles of roadway and is 12.7 feet above sea level. By comparison, Lindbergh Field has a total area of 661 acres and rests at sea level next to San Diego Harbor. The airport requires incoming traffic to pass through the heart of downtown, with planes approaching below the top-floors of several of San Diego’s high-rise buildings.

The SDCRAA board estimated that by the year 2020, commercial and passenger traffic at Lindbergh Field would exceed capacity and the result could be the loss of billions of dollars in future commercial and tourist business.

“Lindbergh Field fuels the economy of San Diego,” said Craver to the Clairemont audience. “Business from the airport currently accounts for more than $2.6 billion. We estimate that by the year 2035, that amount will increase to $5.7 billion. We need to prepare for the future. We want two runways that can be used for simultaneous take-off and landing. We want to be able to operate the jet aircraft of the future, for travel to locations, such as the Far East.”

This November 7, County voters will be asked on Proposition A to voice their opinion on whether a portion of the Marines Corps base should be used for a civilian airport. The SDCRAA is seeking voter approval in the hopes that a resounding show of public support for the measure will sway politicians to begin the process of any joint-use civilian/military arrangement with Miramar. Any use of the base would require congressional and ultimately presidential approval.

But judging from the reactions of the citizens at the Clairemont Town Council meeting on September 7, as well as statements made by the Congressional delegation from San Diego, and local politicians such as City Council woman Donna Frye, who represents a portion of the area in question, passage of Proposition A seems an uphill battle.

“Councilwoman Frye supports the Marines and believes Miramar should remain a military base,” said a representative for Frye during the Clairemont meeting. This joined statements by Congressmen Bob Filner, Brian Bilbray, Susan Davis, and Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter, who have all publicly stated their support for keeping NCAS Miramar a military-only operation.

Proposition A has been endorsed by the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corporation, which echoed the goals of the SDCRAA in saying that a vote in support of Proposition A would only mean that a process for negotiations with the Marines over the future of Miramar could commence.

“Airports are a national treasure. There have only been two new international airports built in the United States in the last 20 years. As a former Air Force officer, I realize that national security must be our number one concern. But who can say what conditions will be like 15 years from now? Who knows what the threat will be like?” said Craver. “We hope we can persuade voters that this is in San Diego’s long-term best interest. But whether or not Proposition A passes this November, the problems of what to do with Lindbergh Field will not go away.”

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