Get Rid of San Diego’s Airport Authority

It is past time for the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority Board to be shut down.

The airport authority was established at the urging of then Mayor Dick Murphy as a temporary measure. Its purpose was to put to the voters the fundamental question of whether to move the airport from its current Lindbergh location. Thereafter, the airport would be folded into a streamlined and consolidated Regional Infrastructure and Transportation Authority.

Mayor Murphy’s plan to have an election in which the entire community was focused squarely on the airport location question was, of course, thwarted when the city’s pension scandal erupted. The election still happened, but proponents of moving the airport, for a variety of reasons, felt they didn’t get the “fair test” of the electorate they had expected.

The board of directors of the agency devolved into a squabble and the authority dithered on obligations to the Navy necessary to secure a vital taxiway on the north side of the runway.

From the moment of its inception, the board — however well intended its members — never asserted its leadership. As a result, the executive staff, which had migrated from its previous life at the port, embedded the historical port culture into the operations of the airport authority.

This, of course, is a disaster and precisely what folks were trying to avoid by not duplicating the port governance model in the original legislation creating the authority. Ironically, the flawed port governance structure was largely re-embraced when authority governance was changed in subsequent legislation.

Only in a culture such as the port (and now the airport authority) could anyone take seriously the idea that staff must have the ability to be exempted from daily expense account limits. Only at the port and the airport could pension benefits be ladled on top of substantial executive salaries without a single commissioner or board member raising an eyebrow.

But, far more egregious, is the billion-dollar expansion of Terminal Two. This at the same time that the airport authority is offering cash incentives for airlines to fill empty space in what is already built.

Rather than take advantage of the economic slowdown to do it right, staff has bulldozed its agenda to simply keep building on the bay side of the airport where traffic congestion is already a mess. This, despite the fact that the Airport Authority’s own EIR reveals that additional traffic will require widening Harbor Drive. Yes, the same Harbor Drive that is scheduled to be narrowed in the Port’s North Embarcadero plan. But, the wheels of the Airport bureaucracy just keep chugging forward.

The world is changing around them but this narrowly focused bureaucracy just keeps marching forward on goals established before the world began to change. These are highly qualified, well-intended people doing what they know to do it a very limited space. It is the board that should prod the authority into becoming a community oriented, publicly accountable asset. It is the Board that should drive agenda out of the 20th century and into the 21st. But, that simply has not happened.

The Lindbergh site could have been at the front of the line for Federal High Speed Rail Funds. Instead, we are not even on the list, as California seeks over $4 billion in the first wave of Federal funding.

Thanks to the efforts of Mayor Sanders, High Speed Rail Commissioner Lynn Schenck, and Sandag, San Diego still has a chance to get back into the game.

But, the airport authority continues to be the problem when it should be leading the solution. They have done nothing to address the fundamental need to access land for a north side taxiway necessary for rational expansion of Lindbergh’s capacity. And, the staff dominated culture refuses to take any responsibility for the airport’s impact in the community.

To airport professionals, the customer is the airline not the passengers and certainly not the community at large. This narrow vision is a death sentence.

Many, who believe that the airport must be moved, tolerate this behavior because they believe a poorly developed Lindbergh will eventually make the case for a new location. I’ve listened to this intriguing theory for 30 years … and the airport is still there.

Business boosters who continue to promote this delusion are the architects of their own demise. Lindbergh Field is uniquely situated to serve as a multi-modal transportation hub that could be a model for 21st century planning.

This is the public debate we should be having. The airport authority should be leading it. Instead, it has become just another staff dominated, narrow interest, bureaucracy more focused on protecting its turf and expanding its narrow mission than helping to integrate the myriad of complex transportation challenges faced by the entire community into a comprehensive, rational plan.

Government, at all levels, must identify ways to shrink bureaucracies, eliminate overlap and duplication, and consolidate functions.

At this point, this one should be easy — eliminate the authority board, fold the authority into Sandag or the county. It doesn’t matter how much you may dislike Sandag or the county.

The truth is nobody likes anybody.

On principle, the airport must be accountable to all of the citizens of the region. These are our only two region-wide organizations. Pick one. Either choice will represent incremental progress.