California Coastal Commission OK’s the project, but wants assurances of a on-airport transit station, free shuttle from Old Town and a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.
BY LORI WEISBERG SEPT. 13, 2021 5:35 PM PT
The San Diego International Airport’s longstanding plan to build a much expanded Terminal 1 has received the blessing of the California Coastal Commission, a crucial step that will move the $3 billion project closer to a groundbreaking later this year.
While the commission raised some concerns about environmental issues, such as greenhouse gas emissions, potential flooding due to sea level rise and increased traffic congestion, it imposed a number of conditions designed to minimize the impacts of the project.
Coastal Commission Vice Chair Donne Brownsey did not mince words in describing the current condition of San Diego’s Terminal 1.
“I think I speak probably for a lot of travelers that fly in and out of the San Diego airport at my joy that you’re going to be building a new terminal,” she said. “Don’t take this personally, but there’s only one way to describe San Diego airport terminal (1) on a Friday, which is a mosh pit — wall to wall people, not enough facilities. And let’s just say I’m very happy to know in the future there will be a new terminal in San Diego.”
San Diego County Regional Airport Authority Board Chairman Gil Cabrera characterized the commission vote as “another big stride” in the airport’s “long journey to becoming America’s best airport.”
“This is one of the final sort of regulatory permitting hurdles we have as we go into the fall when we start breaking ground on stuff,” Cabrera said. “We’re an airport on the coast so we could not move forward without Coastal Commission approval.”
The project, although delayed for a year because of now resolved traffic concerns raised three years ago by a number of governmental agencies, calls for demolition of the existing 336,000-square-foot, 19-gate Terminal 1 building, and replacing it with a 1.2 million-square-foot building housing 30 gates.
The airlines that currently use Terminal 1, among them Southwest, complain that the aging facility, built in 1967, is no longer adequate to accommodate growing passenger volumes. Passenger traffic took a huge dive last year because of the pandemic and while flight activity has rebounded greatly, it could be a couple of years before the yearly numbers return to the airport’s record level of 25 million passengers in 2019.
Also planned is a new 5,500-space parking garage and relocation of the existing taxiway and construction of a second taxiway to allow for easier movement of arriving and departing aircraft.
Two key hurdles have to be cleared before construction can start, said Dennis Probst, vice president of development for the airport. The Airport Authority is awaiting expected approval by the Federal Aviation Administration of a federal-level environmental impact analysis. And next month, the Airport Authority is expected to approve two major design and construction contracts for the terminal, related roadways and airfield improvements.
Assuming those two hurdles are cleared, construction would start in November, with the first 19 gates in the new terminal expected to open in 2025. The demolition of the old terminal would follow, with the additional 11 gates ready to debut by 2027, Probst said. While he expects the maximum contract price will exceed $3 billion, he hopes that by the time the design process is complete, the cost will be closer to $3 billion.
Key to the success of the project and the eventual 40 million passengers the airport is expected to serve by 2040 are a number of planned roadway improvements. Key among them is a new three-lane airport access road from Laurel Street and North Harbor Drive that airport planners say would remove 45,000 vehicle trips per day from Harbor Drive. The airport will also reserve right-of-way for a future three-lane outbound roadway.
The airport is also working with the San Diego Association of Governments and the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System on an ambitious plan to eventually deliver a high-speed transit connection to Terminals 1 and 2. The linchpin of bringing a people mover to the airport is development of a “Grand Central Station” that would likely be located on the Navy’s 70-acre Old Town Complex, commonly known as NAVWAR. The Navy and SANDAG have been jointly working on the project for some time, but it is not yet a done deal.
Coastal Commission staff noted its strong support of a direct transit connection to the airport, such as a people mover, which it said would go a long way toward easing inevitable traffic congestion. As a special condition, it is requiring the airport to identify the specific location it plans to set aside for a future on-airport transit station, to be generally located on the west side of the Terminal 1 parking structure.
In the short term, the commission specified that it wants the Airport Authority to follow through on its commitment to provide free shuttle service between the Old Town Transit Center and the airport. The shuttle, including a plan for its hours and frequency of operation, should be implemented no later than Dec. 1, the commission said. Airport Authority CEO Kim Becker told commissioners that the all-electric shuttles, which are being financed with airport funds, will launch service Nov. 21, with two to four buses at first.
The prospect, long term, for a speedy transit connection is good news for travelers and the environment, Commissioner Brownsey said.
“I really see this as a super positive development,” she said. “If you’ve ever flown in and out of Portland, it is so great because you just jump on their version of the metro and it’s just such a quick, easy and inexpensive and certainly a much better option in terms of greenhouse gases. And here you have proximity, which is really positive.”
In its report to the commissioners, the staff noted that the Airport Authority had previously erred by commencing a number of projects on the redevelopment site without having first gotten commission approval. Among them were a 70,762 square-foot facility maintenance department building, a 3-million gallon underground cistern, and conversion of a long-term public parking lot to employee parking.
Becker apologized profusely to the commission for what she said were “missteps” stemming from a misinterpretation of the state Coastal Act.
“Upon learning of this, I immediately called for a comprehensive review of all of the authority’s capital projects and instructed our team to disclose our mistakes to the commission’s executive director,” Becker said. “I instituted new procedures in coordination with your staff to ensure this never happens again.”
Because of the violations, the commission imposed some additional requirements, including a provision that the airport install electric vehicle (EV) charging ports at 5 percent of new parking stalls and that it construct an additional 5 percent of parking stalls as EV-ready in the future.
The airport also has agreed to capture an additional 36 acres of stormwater from the development site, a move that will provide more water quality benefits than what would be normally required of such a development.
As part of the commission’s overall approval, it also is requiring a plan for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and a yearly report that calculates emissions resulting from the approved project and all measures taken to reduce net emissions to zero.
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