Regional leaders have reached a deal that’s likely to delay an expansion of San Diego International Airport’s Terminal 1, but could lead to the project including a new trolley connection to the airport.
The agreement came at a Tuesday summit called by Mayor Kevin Faulconer, that included the leaders from the Airport Authority, Port of San Diego, Metropolitan Transit System and the San Diego Association of Governments, after those groups and others savaged the expansion plan for failing to improve the airport’s transportation shortcomings.
“At the multi-agency summit I held today, the Airport Authority committed to reworking its development plan to fully analyze transportation solutions both inside and outside its footprint, including enhancing transit connectivity and reducing traffic congestion,” Faulconer said in a statement.
Kim Becker, the Airport Authority’s CEO, said it’s likely incorporating new transit and traffic improvements in the expansion plan will require taking a step back in the project’s environmental review process, which would delay the project. She said she’d know for sure by the beginning of the year whether that’s necessary but expects that it is. She said the agency forecasts that every month of delay increases the project’s cost by $8 million.
“The whole premise behind today was bringing decision-makers together, so we could find a path forward, that included a discussion on transit options,” Becker said.
Agreeing to a likely delay, though, is a big deal because much of the disagreement between the Airport Authority and other major public agencies that lashed out against the project dealt with timing.
The Airport Authority argued it could not include any transportation projects off airport property, including transit upgrades, in the expansion plan because spending airport funds off airport grounds requires Federal Aviation Administration approval.
Officials from state and regional government agencies responded that the Airport Authority should either move forward while working for that approval or hold off on the project until they’ve received it. It’s unacceptable, they said, not to deal upfront with the effects of a terminal expansion just because the FAA hasn’t signed off yet.
But Becker has said she can’t be blasé about a delay, because major airline tenants at Terminal 1 were willing to shoulder the cost of an expansion now – through higher rates, fees and charges to operate – and that could change if the economy crashes anytime soon.
But now, the groups appear to have found common ground. The Airport Authority has agreed to the delay in order to incorporate transit priorities and appease the region’s most influential agencies.
There has still not been any decision on how the agencies would like to extend trolley service to the airport, nor how they would pay for it.
Pending FAA approval, the Airport Authority is expected to pay for some share of the project. MTS is also pursuing a potential ballot measure for 2020 that would increase taxes to pay for transit, which could fund another large portion of the project. Becker said the MTS ballot measure didn’t come up at Tuesday’s meeting.
She said she reiterated in the meeting that Airport Authority had already reached out to the FAA in hopes of beginning the approval process, but that it would take some time.
SANDAG is expected to now take on a lead role in planning what the trolley connection or other transit improvements could look like, as part of its work updating the region’s multi-decade transportation plan, expected to be adopted in early 2020.
How the trolley reaches the airport is still uncertain, too.
Becker said there was still support for the so-called Intermodal Transportation Center, or ITC, a new station at the north end of the airport that would consolidate stops for buses, the trolley, Coaster and Amtrak. It is included in SANDAG’s existing long-term transportation plan but no one has a plan to pay for it.
Other ideas discussed, Becker said, included short-term improvements, like improving MTS’s 992 bus. And longer term, she said there remains support for building an automated people mover on airport property that connects to a rail station on the north side of the airport, whether that’s through the ITC or at existing trolley stations in the area.
“We are looking at as I say, preserving the opportunity, so that whatever we do doesn’t close off an opportunity,” she said.
There’s one other big change coming to the Terminal 1 expansion plan. The original plan relied on growth forecasts using out-of-date information. Becker said they’ll re-run the analysis using data on airport travel from 2018, which could also result in a need for bigger changes.
Clarification: This post has been updated to reflect the fact that leaders agreed to backtrack in the environmental review process, not restart it entirely, and that the airport has talked with the FAA about starting the approval process but the process has not formally begun.