Port could regain control of airport under Gonzalez Fletcher bill

Control of Lindbergh Field would return to the port district under a bill to be introduced next week by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, D-San Diego,

The San Diego Unified Port District ran the airport until 2002, when the state Legislature created the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority to look into moving it as well as operate it.

The voters rejected a move and the airport board has since enlarged one terminal, made plans to rebuild the second and consolidated rental car operations away from congested Harbor Island.

”If you look at the last 15 years, you could think things are OK, but prospectively there are concerns,” Gonzalez Fletcher said Thursday.

Airport Chairwoman April Boling said she has not seen the bill and said it would be difficult to react in detail.

“I would question why that change needs to be made,” she said. “We haven’t heard what this is intended to accomplish.”

She added: “The port has a lot on its plate and the airport would become again only one of the things that they are looking at. I’m not sure that is the in the best interests of the citizens of this region.”

Port leaders declined to discuss the proposal but noted its previous control worked well and is interested in addressing some of the issues Gonzalez Fletcher raised.

Gonzalez, who has introduced bills previously to reform the San Diego Association of Governments and the Civic San Diego downtown planning agency, said she decided to tackle port-airport governance last year after consulting with labor and environmental groups, although she has been contemplating pushing for a change for years.

She said the shift is needed because she does not believe the airport is adequately addressing traffic congestion as airport use increases; the long-term impact of climate change on sea-level rise; labor union needs; and the best allocation of scarce taxpayer dollars.

[Earlier edition mistakenly said port was not addressing traffic issues.]

"Control of the airport was pulled out of the port for the purpose of moving the airport — that’s not going to happen,” she said. “The airport was operating well when it was under the port. We’re talking about a planning and resource issue.”

She was alluding to the countywide ballot measure in 2006 to authorize shifting Lindbergh to part of Miramar Marine Corps Air Station. Voters rejected it on a 62-38 percent margin and the airport board turned to upgrading the airport complex to handle additional air traffic and ground transportation.

Besides taking over Lindbergh, formally called San Diego International Airport, the new authority also took over Airport Land Use Commission functions from the San Diego Association of Governments.

Gonzalez Fletcher said she has not yet decided who should oversee land-use compatibility around the county’s 16 civilian and military airports.

The port and airport currently employ just over 1,000 employees together and operate a combined budget this year of $454.4 million plus more than $1 billion in multiyear capital improvement projects. In 2002 the port’s budget, including airport operations, was $207.3 million, not adjusted for inflation over the last 16 years.

Airport CEO Kimberly Becker said a merger would not necessarily save much money since there is little overlapping responsibility.

When the airport authority was created, the port agreed to pay $125 million from its reserves to the airport and it has since curtailed some of its park and public improvement efforts, partly because it was not earning overhead income from airport operations.

Port Chairman Rafael Castellanos, who declined to be interviewed, issued a statement saying his agency will also wait to see the bill before offering a reaction. But he said the port is interested in improving transportation planning and the impact of rising sea levels on the port tidelands where Lindbergh is located.

“In this case the port is uniquely situated to advise as we served as the agency that ran the airport for many years, it is located on our waterfront land and is our largest tenant,” he said.

The assemblywoman, a former union official, said the airport should have signed a project labor agreement when it expanded Terminal 2 because that would have guaranteed job safety, health care coverage and job training. The airport did pay prevailing union-level wages for the $1 billion project completed in 2013.

“The port is definitely a better partner working with the unions than our airport has been,” Gonzalez Fletcher said, adding that several unions support her bill.

Brigette Browning, president of the Unite Here Local 30 hotel and food service workers union, said her group always supports Gonzalez Fletcher’s efforts.

“Her bills benefit our communities, and we have confidence that she is leading San Diego to be representative of all San Diegans,” she said.

An airport spokeswoman said the latest agreement reached last year received “overwhelming” approval from all bargaining units.

Harbor Drive traffic has dropped with the relocation of the rental car companies from Harbor Drive to Pacific Highway and new roads on airport property, officials said. Steps also are being taken to improve public transit, although no extension of the San Diego Trolley is contemplated.

Rising sea levels through 2050 have been taken into account in current planning but further steps would have to be taken if San Diego Bay rises further.

The airport is focused on planning for what could be a $2 billion replacement for Terminal 1, projected to start construction no earlier than 2020, but but Becker said preparing for a merger might interrupt that focus.

The region has wrestled with airport needs ever since World War II, when jet travel replaced railroads as the means for quick, long-distance travel. The city briefly considered moving Lindbergh to Miramar Marine Corps Air Station in the late-1940s but decided it was too far from town and the military decided it would need to keep the airfield as the Cold War heated up.

New terminals were built at the present site starting in the 1960s and night-time takeoff curfews were enacted to reduce noise impact on Point Loma residents.

As arrivals and takeoffs increased, more gates were added to handle today’s roughly 200,000 annual operations with 22 million passengers. Airport planners say the facility can be expanded to 300,000 operations and 28 million passengers expected by 2035.

The port has its own list of major projects in the works — from the redevelopment of old rental car lots on Harbor Drive into hotel sites to a replacement for Seaport Village and major tourist and convention facilities on the Chula Vista bayfront.

Neither agency levies a general tax on city or county residents and businesses but relies on user fees, leases, concessions and parking income and grants to cover expenses.

roger.showley@sduniontribune.com; (619) 293-1286; Twitter: @rogershowley

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