Surprise opposition to the proposed expansion of Lindbergh Field was voiced Thursday by the chairman of the Board of Port Commissioners, the agency that operates the airport.
Mel Portwood also said that the board should be put in charge of finding an alternate site for a San Diego airport because elected politicians are unlikely to get the job done.
In a related development, it was disclosed that a proposal to build a binational airport at Otay Mesa--run jointly with Mexico--was dealt a blow when a Mexican transportation official told a U.S. counterpart of Mexican opposition to the idea.
Portwood--stressing that his views on the plans to expand Lindbergh Field were strictly personal--made his statements at a breakfast meeting of the Otay Mesa Chamber of Commerce. He was on a panel that debated the airport's expansion plans and site selection for a facility to replace or supplement Lindbergh.
Portwood and the port board are studying two plans to augment facilities at Lindbergh to meet growing passenger and airline needs through 2010. The expansion plans resulted from a $600,000 study done for the board by an Orange County consulting firm.
"I believe that both of the plans are flawed," Portwood said. "They call for the doubling of the (airport) gates. . . . I am not willing to support plans at this time to enter into an expansion of the facilities."
Portwood warned that if the expansion plans--which could cost as much as $385 million--are implemented, Lindbergh's capacity to handle the increase in passengers and planes would be exceeded. The problem is exacerbated by the airport's reliance on a single runway, he said.
"It doesn't make any sense to increase the number of passengers and planes when you're still using only one runway," Portwood said.
The lone main runway handles both arriving and departing jets. Portwood noted that geographic constraints make it impossible to add another runway to the 475-acre facility, which is boxed in by downtown growth and the adjacent Marine Corps Recruit Depot. Portwood also said the existing runway is too short to safely handle fully loaded jumbo jets.
On the binational airport issue, Becky Sullivan, spokeswoman for U.S. Undersecretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, said that Chao met Aug 10 in Mexico City with Andres Caso Lombardo, Mexico's secretary of communication and transportation. "During that meeting, Secretary Caso did tell her (Chao) that Mexico is opposed to the binational airport," Sullivan said Thursday.
A spokesman for San Diego City Councilman Ron Roberts, who has emerged as the biggest advocate for a bi-national airport, said that Caso's opposition to the project is "nothing new."
"We have been repeatedly offered encouragement by U.S. officials. Mexican officials have told us there are different factions. Some oppose it, some support it. They said President Carlos Salinas de Gortari hasn't made a decision," said Michael Abrams, Roberts' spokesman. "If President Salinas had made a decision, we would have heard about it."
After surprising the chamber audience and other panel members with his opposition to the Lindbergh expansion plans, Portwood advocated taking the responsibility of finding a new airport site out of the hands of elected politicians and letting the appointed port board decide on a location.
"It stands to reason that the governmental agency that has the responsibility of operating the airport should be the agency with the responsibility for providing supplemental service at another site or replacing Lindbergh Field," Portwood said.
A decision on a new site will not be made as long as it is left up to the politicians, he said. A San Diego Assn. of Governments committee composed of San Diego Mayor Maureen O'Connor, Board of Supervisors Chairman Leon Williams, Coronado City Councilwoman Lois Ewen and Portwood is supposed to make a recommendation on a new airport site.
Sandag and other government agencies have made controversial recommendations for new airport sites, including a binational airport and using Miramar Naval Air Station. Other groups and politicians have also recommended building a regional airport at Camp Pendleton and in the desert in Imperial County.
Councilman Roberts expressed support for Portwood's call to allow the port board to choose a new site. He said that "non-elected officials" would probably be able to reach a quicker decision on a site.
San Diego City Councilman Bob Filner, an advocate of situating a new airport in Imperial County, lashed out at suggestions for a U.S.-Mexico facility, calling it an "impractical option . . . fraught with so many complications."
He said national and jurisdictional concerns, along with opposition from Reps. Jim Bates (D-San Diego) and Duncan Hunter (R-Coronado), make the construction of a binational airport an impossibility.
Filner wants Lindbergh expanded and the eventual construction of a newer, bigger airport. In his comments, Filner sniped repeatedly at Portwood and Roberts.
He accused Roberts of using the binational airport, which would be in Filner's council district, as an election issue. Filner called Portwood's opposition to airport expansion irresponsible and said allowing the Port District, whose members are appointed by certain cities, to pick an airport site would be unacceptable because the board is not an "accountable body."
Felipe Baril, manager of the Tijuana airport, announced Thursday that the Mexican government is going through with plans to expand and modernize the airport, and welcomes private investors to help finance the project.
Plans call for additional runways and added passenger gates and beefed up parking, Baril said. There is also a proposal to build a hotel near the airport, which is situated just yards from the international border.
Also, Baril announced that two Japanese carriers, Japan Air Lines and All Nippon Airways, are discussing inaugurating intercontinental service to Tijuana as early as November. Beginning next month, Mexican carriers will also begin offering flights to Los Angeles from Tijuana, Baril added.