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Hearings to Probe Plans for Airport

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The future of Lindbergh Field is at stake as the Board of Port Commissioners holds the first of several public hearings Tuesday to discuss expansion plans for the postage stamp-size airport that critics say is obsolescent.

Two proposals will be on the agenda when the board holds a special 9 a.m. meeting at the Holiday Inn on North Harbor Drive. Each of the two plans, estimated to cost hundreds of millions of dollars, is designed to make the airport more efficient, but only over the next 20 years.

By 2010, San Diego Unified Port District officials expect a decision will have been made to build a bigger airport at a new location mutually agreeable to politicians, government bureaucrats and military officials, who so far have been unable to agree on a site.

Commissioners will hear debate on two expansion plans submitted by P & D Technologies, an Orange County consulting firm hired by the Port District in 1989 to study Lindbergh Field’s growing pains. The $600,000 study proposed about a dozen expansion ideas, and the district narrowed those down to two.

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One alternative would cost about $289 million and calls for the acquisition of 48 acres from the Marine Corps Recruit Depot adjacent Lindbergh Field, an idea the military has opposed. The estimated cost does not include the purchase of the Marine Corps property. Other features of the plan include:

* Adding a 27-gate north terminal.

* Building an 11-gate terminal to handle cargo and mail.

* Better access to Harbor Drive.

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* Direct access to Interstate 5 via Washington Street.

The second alternative would cost an estimated $385 million and would not require any land acquisitions. Its features include:

* Two new satellite buildings, with 25 gates, next to the East Terminal.

* A people-mover underground rail system that would link the terminals.

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Both plans also call for the Port District to acquire the USAir hangar (formerly the Pacific Southwest Airlines hangar) and the construction of additional parking space and a 4-million-gallon jet fuel storage facility.

“The hearings are going to be a highly visible and public process,” Port District spokesman Dan Wilkens said. “We’re trying to gain as much information as we can about these two alternative plans. . . . The board will then determine what the next step will be.”

Airport manager Maurice (Bud) McDonald stressed that the proposed expansion plans do not call for the construction of a new airport. Recent proposals by several agencies and government officials call for building a new airport at either Brown Field, Miramar Naval Air Station or in Imperial County. The plan for Brown Field calls for an international airport that would serve Tijuana and San Diego.

“Moving the airport is not an issue here. This is a study to make Lindbergh feasible for a period of time until, if and when, another facility is built. Until that is done, this airport will continue to operate,” McDonald said.

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Port officials said expansion of Lindbergh Field is necessary to meet projected increases in the number of passengers in the coming decades. In 20 years, experts predict, Lindbergh will handle 24 million passengers annually, more than double the number that now use the airport.

However, McDonald said that “lately the number of passengers passing through Lindbergh Field has been pretty flat.” The number of passengers in July actually fell 1% compared to the same period a year ago, he said.

Current projections forecast only a minuscule increase in the number of passengers expected to use Lindbergh Field in 1990 compared to 1989, McDonald said. He estimated that 11.2 million people will use the airport this year, compared to 11.1 million last year. The number of passengers has increased by about 300 a day this year, he said.

One reason is a slowdown in tourism, which has affected all of Southern California. Economic uncertainty is keeping out-of-state tourists at home, tourism officials say.

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“Most people feel that the economy is getting soft and that is affecting travel,” Al Reece, vice president of the San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau, said in an interview last month.

Meanwhile, airport officials have embarked on $27 million worth of “quick fix” improvements to ease congestion at Lindbergh. Wilkens, the port spokesman, said environmental impact statements are being prepared for the projects.

Port commissioners have already authorized several phases of construction, he said. These include moving the fuel storage facility to the north end of the airport’s single runway, building additional baggage claim areas and building eight new gates. Construction on these improvements should start in two to five years, he said.

One proposal that will be debated Tuesday will revive a controversial plan to acquire more land from the adjacent recruit depot. Previous studies have also advocated the acquisition of MCRD property, which have been strongly condemned by senior Marine Corps officers.

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In August, 1989, Marine Corps Commandant Alfred Gray held a special press conference at the MCRD to denounce plans by the San Diego Assn. of Governments and the Airport Site Coalition, an Orange County group, to expand Lindbergh Field onto MCRD land and build a regional airport just north of Oceanside on Camp Pendleton.

Gray noted that the Marine Corps had already given more than 400 acres of MCRD land to San Diego since 1923 and could ill afford to give up any more of the remaining 388 acres.

“The buck stops here, and the issue stops here. There is no more acreage available,” Gray said. “From my vantage point, the MCRD is not an option.”

The outspoken general also warned that putting a civilian airport at Camp Pendleton would “pose great risks to the training we do” there.

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Both Wilkens and McDonald said they expect a decision on a new airport site for San Diego County to be made in the near future. However, even after a location is selected, it may take a decade or more before the new airport can be built and ready for service.

In the meantime, Lindbergh Field will have to be expanded to meet the traveling public’s needs over the next 20 years.

“These proposed improvements will only take the airport to about the year 2010. People have to know this,” Wilkens said. “Eventually, there will be additional airport capacity somewhere.”

“The board recognizes the geographical constraints when it comes to building a new facility,” he added. “In the interim, we will have to make this facility meet the expected demand. We fully accept that an alternative or supplemental airport will not come on line in the next 10 or 15 years.”

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Where the new facility will be located remains the subject of much debate. Lately, the debate has become more heated as the San Diego skyline continues to sprout around the airport, much to the dismay of pilots who are forced to land jumbo jets while keeping one eye on the downtown runway and the other on nearby buildings.

“The Board (of Port Commissioners) has said that someday we will have to build another facility,” McDonald said. “But where and when are questions that have not been fully answered.”


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