Dan Walters: Officials miss a potential solution for San Diego, Ontario airports

dwalters@sacbee.comAugust 19, 2013 

As San Diego evolved from a sleepy Navy town into a big city with tourism, its major industry, its waterfront airport, became woefully inadequate.

With a single and relatively short runway, Lindbergh Field cannot handle larger, transoceanic jets. But even if it could, its jampacked terminals can't adequately process its current passengers. The airport has maxed out at just under 17 million passengers a year and simply cannot tolerate any more planes or bodies.

San Diego's civic leaders have been seeking a solution to their dilemma for decades, so far without success. San Diego and its surrounding countryside are very hilly, and for decades, the Navy and Marine Corps have occupied the two best local locations for a new airport and refused to part with them.

One alternative, which San Diego has explored, is building a larger airport 115 miles to the east near El Centro and connecting it with the city via a high-speed train of some kind – no small feat because the virtually unpopulated territory it would have to traverse is ruggedly mountainous.

But 115 miles to the north via Interstate 15 lies an airport that is large, modern and withering for lack of passenger traffic.

Although located in San Bernardino County, Ontario International is owned by the city of Los Angeles as a backup to Los Angeles International and a regional airport for the Inland Empire. It was once a seedy dump more suited to a Third World country. But during the 1990s as the Inland Empire boomed, it underwent modernization, with two large terminals and plans for two more.

The region, however, was hard-hit by recession, and Ontario's traffic fell to just 4.3 million passengers in 2012. A new study says it could be half that in a few years. Local officials who believe Los Angeles is neglecting Ontario have begun a campaign to acquire the facility.

Interstate 15 connects the two airports, and linking them with a high-speed train along the freeway route would be much easier and less expensive than either connecting San Diego with El Centro or building an entirely new airport somewhere else. It would be a logical use of high-speed rail, unlike the dubious bullet train that state officials are pushing, and also would benefit communities along the route.

Bottom line: It would make all the sense in the world to merge the two airports into one operational unit, giving San Diego better access to international travelers and giving Ontario and environs some badly needed business.

So why hasn't it happened?

Because local politicians and the people they employ operate in silos. While the state's long-term interests would be served by having better air travel connections, its politicians are oblivious as they push a bullet train to nowhere.

Call The Bee's Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, www.sacbee.com/walters. Follow him on Twitter @WaltersBee.

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