If you have ever flown in or out of Lindbergh Field (SAN) in San Diego, or tried to book a transcontinental or international flight when you did not have a lot of flexibility as to dates or times, you know how rinky-dink this area’s only major commercial airport is. San Diego is one of the ten largest metro areas in the USA, and one of the fastest growing, yet it has an airport suitable for a medium-sized city, at best. And don’t even think about flying in or out at night. That might wake the city out of its decades-long slumber.
The County of San Diego currently has a commission in the final stages of making proposals for solving this problem and building a first-class international airport, to open 15-20 years from now. The commission faces serious problems, and one in particular: Almost all the useable land in the county, on which an airport could be built, is in the hands of the military. Other, non-military, sites that were considered, but have already been rejected, would have placed an airport in the mountains or rugged foothills that surround the metro area on all sides other than the west. Yet other ridiculous proposals have included remote desert sites with high-speed rail to ferry people from the city to the faraway airport.
It is plain (or plane) to all that the only feasible solutions are to take over or share one of the three major military bases in the county: North Island (near downtown and across the bay from the current airport), Miramar (in the heart of the county’s developed area but containing vast open and relatively level land), or Camp Pendleton (in the last mostly undeveloped stretch between the northern suburbs of San Diego and the southern Orange County suburbs of Los Angeles).
The military is asserting a right to call the shots. Secretary of the Navy, Donald C. Winter says:
While I recognize the San Diego region faces difficult planning and economic decisions regarding future aviation growth, I must tell you that national defense requirements preclude making any portion of any of these installations available for a new or dual-use commercial airport.
The commanding officer at Camp Pendleton, Col. Gregory Goodman, was even more blunt about the county’s search for an airport site:
It won’t be at Naval Air Station North Island, it won’t be at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar and it won’t be at Camp Pendleton.
That’s good enough for one member of the commission, Mary Sessom of the eastern suburb of Lemon Grove, who asked, “What part of no don’t we understand?”
However, other members refused to endorse Sessom’s proposal to give up on the military bases.
[Commission Member Anthony] Young flatly refused to bow to a high-ranking official, saying the airport agency does not answer to the military.
“I’m not going to be told what to do or what to think by the Secretary of the Navy or anybody else.”
Indeed, the military does not have a veto here, unless civilian politicians give it one.
Various proposals include a joint-use field on one of the few relatively level parts of Camp Pendleton, near the junction of Interstate 5 and state highway 76; building a new field on open land at Miramar south of the existing navy field; converting part of the existing Miramar fields and building the Marines a new field at Pendleton; or converting North Island.
The North Island plan would entail using the existing Lindbergh terminals and having a rail people-mover in a tube under the bay to gates at North Island. This seems like the best proposal, except that the nighttime restrictions presumably would still apply. The Miramar plan has the advantage of central location, close to freeways and proposed rail-line extensions. The Pendleton plan is rather far from the core metro area, but has the advantage of also serving Orange County (which has a similarly overburdened airport–John Wayne [SNA]). See a Power Point display of the options.
One of these ideas has to fly, or the city won’t. The military simply will have to be reminded that it does not call the shots. Even in sleepy San Diego.