While the Peninsula debates how to best implement the detailed plans for the high speed rail line that will serve their communities, San Diego is dealing with a somewhat different question altogether – a big picture “how do we bring people to and from our town?” issue that is now centered on Lindbergh Field. And HSR plays a potentially major role in determining San Diego transportation policy for decades to come.
The North County Times has a long article on the debate over Lindbergh Field’s future, a debate made necessary by the apparent failure of long-discussed plans to build a new airport at Miramar. The basic problem, as anyone who has ever been to downtown San Diego knows, is that Lindbergh Field cannot be expanded beyond the one-runway configuration it already has. Hemmed in by San Diego Bay, the highrises of downtown, Interstate 5, and a residential neighborhood, it is impossible to expand capacity at Lindbergh Field. So San Diego officials are considering a $4 billion improvement project – and looking at a Lindbergh HSR station as a way to connect the airport to not just the city but the rest of the state, thereby creating new capacity at Lindbergh:
San Diego County Regional Airport Authority board members say they have no choice but to settle for Lindbergh’s limited capacity. After a decadeslong search that cost tens of millions of dollars, voters overwhelmingly rejected the idea of building a new airport at Miramar Marine Corps Air Station in 2006….
It’s not as if increased capacity is totally out of the picture, said committee member Steve Peace, the former state lawmaker who wrote legislation to create the airport authority. He said the train station ultimately would be served by California’s planned 800-mile statewide high-speed rail system and indirectly increase the capacity.
That’s because 11 percent of Lindbergh’s planes fly short hops to Los Angeles, carrying passengers bound for Los Angeles International Airport to catch overseas flights. With high-speed rail, people could take a bullet train instead, Peace said.
Of course, the HSR trains are not going to serve LAX, and even with a Green Line extension to LAX a traveler from SAN to LAX would still have to take two rail lines (Blue and Green) from Union Station to LAX, on top of the HSR trip up from SD. It’s not clear that HSR would really work as a connection for those passengers.
A point that Wendell Cox, perhaps the chief HSR and passenger rail denier in the nation, uses to try and call into question the entire “HSR as airport relief” concept:
Cox, the transportation expert who has studied California’s bullet train, countered there is “not a chance” that that part of the plan would fly.
For starters, Cox said the huge Los Angeles airport is not on the high-speed rail system, as proposed. And he said that with funding uncertain for the chosen route, it is unlikely the state would find money for a spur to LAX.
If it did, he said, the route would be so circuitous and lengthy —- passing through Temecula, Riverside, Ontario and downtown Los Angeles before reaching L.A.’s west side —- that it would fail to persuade many San Diego County residents to take a train instead of a plane.
But let’s move this beyond Steve Peace’s claim about overseas travel. It *would* make much more sense for folks trying to get to or from San Diego to other destinations around the continental U.S. to use HSR as a connecting system – to Ontario Airport, not LAX. Ontario, unlike Lindbergh Field or LAX, has room to grow, and is already slated to receive an HSR stop on the LA-SD spur. The estimated travel time from Ontario to downtown SD is 57 minutes – a reasonable method of connection for travelers headed to or from SD.
It’s also worth considering San Diego’s continued importance as a destination for travelers going to or from other destinations in California. Whether it’s an Angeleno looking for a weekend getaway, or a family from Fresno looking to visit relatives on the other side of the border, Californians make up a big part of San Diego’s travelers. HSR would play an extremely significant role in handling that traffic, easing the burden on not only Lindbergh Field but on Interstates 5 and 15 as well.
What HSR means to Lindbergh Field isn’t a different option for folks headed to Tokyo or Sydney to catch their flight at LAX, but a new and expandable method of bringing people to and from San Diego, period. With HSR San Diego isn’t forced to shoehorn a huge number of passengers into Lindbergh Field, but now has a completely new and high-capacity option for moving people around. It’s no longer “Lindbergh or Miramar or Bust” but a more balanced set of transportation options.
Which makes Wendell Cox’s closing line so absurd:
“It’s time San Diego woke up to the fact that it is a world-class city, and probably the only world-class city without a world-class airport —- certainly the only one in the United States,” Cox said.
“I continue to be completely amazed that the leaders of San Diego settle for being a suburb of Los Angeles when they should take a back seat to no one. It shows a lack of vision that is astounding.”
If “world-class” is to be defined as “on a par with other major first-world cities” then it should seem obvious to everyone except Cox himself that “world-class” cities in the 21st century are defined not by the number of runways at their airport, but by the number of high speed rail lines serving them. San Diego is larger than Málaga and can be compared to Marseille in several respects (both are the third-largest metro areas in their state or country, both are important maritime centers, both serve as a sunny beach destination, both act as a crucial link to the developing world to the south), and both of those cities are important destinations on their respective HSR networks.
Ultimately San Diego should be asking itself how it can use HSR to dramatically improve its connections to the rest of North America, instead of relegating HSR to a role supporting Lindbergh Field. HSR isn’t a junior partner to a transportation strategy focused on interstate freeways and airports, but should be seen as a fully equal – and equally important – solution to San Diego’s mobility needs for the rest of the 21st century.