Tuesday, August 9, 2005
Desert airport site seen as Imperial idea
By MARK WALKER
The San Diego (CA) North County Times
Remote and often sweltering, Imperial County nonetheless offers two distinct advantages in the quest for a new regional airport, backers say. First, the weather in the land of the Salton Sea is almost always “severe clear,” which in pilot jargon means skies are blue and wind is light —- optimal flying conditions.
More important, the proponents say, Imperial County is the one place that wants a 24-hour, dual-runway airport to serve the region’s growing air traffic needs.
To underscore that support, Imperial County supervisors are scheduled this morning to approve putting an advisory measure on the Nov. 8 special election ballot, asking their voters if they support the airport effort.
“There is not one doubt that it will be approved,” Imperial County Supervisor Joe Maruca said Monday of the November vote. “An airport would be huge for the economic development of this area.”
Maruca and Lanny Foote, a member of the Imperial County Airport Advisory Committee, said Imperial County offers the solution to the long-debated question of where a new airport should be built.
“No one in San Diego County wants a new airport,” Foote said. “They want to leave Lindbergh where it is.
“But if there is a true desire for a real international airport instead of a single-runway airport like Lindbergh that can’t handle anything larger than a Boeing 757 because of the runway length, we are the answer.”
The San Diego County Regional Airport Authority has winnowed its list of 32 potential airport sites to four civilian and five military sites. The military sites are considered highly unlikely, leaving the authority with Imperial County, a site near Campo in southeastern San Diego County, and a Lindbergh expansion as its options. A site near Borrego Springs is officially on the list, but is not being studied as a serious contender.
The airport authority has set an April deadline to come up with its recommendation to voters in this county, a recommendation that will appear on the November 2006 ballot.
Imperial has an influential backer in U.S. Rep. Bob Filner, D-San Diego, whose district includes all of farm-dominated Imperial County to the east, which has about 150,000 residents. Filner has argued that the authority needs to be visionary and consider the possibilities of creating a two-county economic region, one that also could open up a new transportation and cargo corridor stretching from the Pacific Ocean to Arizona and take in the booming Mexicali region along the U.S.-Mexico border.
His vision includes linking the counties via a magnetic levitation train, an emerging train technology in which the cars float above rail lines and are propelled by opposing magnets. The congressman has secured $800,000 to study a “maglev” train tying San Diego with Imperial at a speed of more than 300 miles per hour.
The cost of a magnetic levitation train linking the two counties isn’t certain but will be part of the study conducted by the San Diego Association of Governments.
Imperial County Supervisor Larry Grogan said Filner, a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and highest-ranking Democrat on the panel in terms of seniority, is a true believer.
“He’s a man with a mission,” Grogan said. “He truly believes in this.”
Grogan said the Salton Sea could provide the power for a maglev train through existing and planned geothermal energy plants that convert superheated water into steam to generate electricity.
Maruca said Imperial County officials have not specified where the airport would be built, only that it would be close to the San Diego County line with easy access to Interstate 8.<>P”It will be in the western part of the county where there is plenty of open land,” he said.
And while there is no organized opposition in his county, Maruca said “a couple of people have told me that they don’t want big planes flying around them.”
Maruca has appeared before the airport authority several times to pound home his county’s desire for the airport, and point out that it has the available land as well as access to water and power.
A new airport is forecast to cost anywhere from $10 billion to $20 billion, money that will come from federal grants and bonds backed by airport revenues, such as landing and lease fees and a surcharge applied to airline passenger tickets.
Imperial County backers started pushing for the airport about three years ago when a proposed new cargo-only airport at Brown Field in San Diego was abandoned.
The Imperial airport effort got $500,000 for a technical study, thanks to Filner and U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-El Cajon, which will be completed in about six months.
Foote said any concerns about losing airport revenue to Imperial County could be addressed by creation of a two-county joint powers authority to divvy up that money.
In the end, Imperial offers the path of least resistance, according to Maruca.
“The Marines aren’t going to give up Miramar, and the people who live around Lindbergh would fight expansion tooth and nail,” he said. “We offer the solution for San Diego’s problem.”