By Raymond Bender
Sometimes, you just have to shake your head and ask, What was he thinking? Today, the “he” is San Diego Board of Supervisor Bill Horn.
Here is today’s specific question: Did the McClellan-Palomar (Palomar) Airport consultant add a massive $12 million retaining wall to the 2018 Palomar Master Plan so Bill Horn could add 60 more feet to the Palomar runway?
The History: Bill Horn’s Dogged Pursuit of a Palomar 900-Foot Runway Extension
The County of San Diego operates eight county airports (but not the San Diego International Airport). Palomar is one county airport within the city of Carlsbad in North County. At a cost of $700,000 in 2013, the county asked a consultant to study whether the runway could be stretched from 4,900 feet to 5,800 feet.
The county archives are yet to tell us why a 900-foot extension was picked. Though this article may provide some clues.
In December 2015, the consultant reported back to the Board. An 800-foot, perhaps even an 840 feet extension was possible. Palomar simply didn’t have enough land to stretch further. Why? The Palomar west runway end falls off into a 15-foot deep canyon and the Palomar east runway end looms on a plateau about 50 feet above hundreds of cars on El Camino Real, which nudges up against the airport.
But surely, insisted Supervisor Horn during the December 2015 meeting there must be a way to get 900 feet. Moreover, he mused, why should the runway stop at El Camino Real? How about bridging over ECR?
The consultant quickly dispensed with the “Over ECR” suggestion on multiple grounds including its exorbitant cost and likely FAA opposition. Moreover, none of the other 4 supervisors seemed to have any concern about the consultant’s recommendation that the Palomar runway be extended “only” to 800 feet.
The Consultant’s Dilemma and the County 2018 – 2038 Palomar Master Plan
My, oh, my. What to do? What to do? You don’t stay a county consultant long if you can’t accommodate your client. Take it from a former 30-year government employee. Consultants have to cut the words “can’t” (and as we shall soon see, apparently also the word “cost”) from their vocabulary.
Fast forward to the county’s 2018 Palomar Master Plan. The consultant proposes a safety system (called an EMAS or Engineered Materials Arresting System, similar to the gravel escape routes you sometimes see along steep freeway grades) at the Palomar west canyon end. Also, the consultant proposes a massive west end retaining wall. Then the consultant notes “These modifications allow for a future 900-foot runway extension to the east.” (See January PEIR page 4-4.)
Now, look at some very interesting project construction costs in the Master Plan PEIR table on Page ES-11. The table refers to a runway west end EMAS costing $25,000,000 and to a runway east end EMAS costing $12,160,000. Do the math. Even though the Palomar west end and east end EMASs will be essentially the same and designed for the same aircraft using the runway (depending on whether aircraft take off towards the ocean or east). It seems that the west end retaining wall costs $12,840,000 ($25 million minus $12.16 million.) Call it $12 million.
Notice especially that the page ES-11 cost table contains 20 individual cost items ranging from $45,000 to $30,960,000. Wouldn’t you think the table would call out a $12 million retaining wall – especially if it was unnecessary?
Apparently, the consultant received Bill Horn’s message: If you consultants can only give me 840 feet today, find a way to give me an extra 60 feet and 900 total feet tomorrow.
Bill Horn’s Dilemma
For sure, we don’t know why Bill Horn is wantonly wedded to a 900-foot Palomar runway extension costing many millions to extend Palomar runway a miserly few more feet. But clues exist. If you check the aircraft manufacturer Gulfstream website, you will see that a Gulfstream 550 needs 5,910 feet to rise fully loaded from a runway.
Now, what airport users do you suppose would like to fly a Gulfstream 550 or 650ER out of Palomar rather than troubling their executives with a car trip to the easily accessible Lindbergh Field 29 miles to the South? After all, being shuttled in a limo for an extra hour can be taxing, even if you do have a minibar and telephone at hand to conduct business as your chauffeur fights traffic. And what, if any, campaign contributions do such users make to political campaigns? Inquiring minds want to know.
Now the dilemma. It is a politician’s job to serve his constituents. If a large San Diego company wants to use Palomar rather than Lindbergh to avoid inconveniencing executives, Bill Horn should listen. Even if that company’s flights are only a few hundred a year and less than 1 percent of the 208,000 annual operations that county forecasts in its PMP by 2038.
But where do you draw the line? It is said that the famous 1960s Sacramento legislator “Big Daddy” Jesse Unruh said something like: “If you can’t take the lobbyists’ money, drink their wine, and smoke their cigars and still tell them “no,” you don’t belong in politics.”
Should someone on county staff point out the facts above? Does county have a staff, which independently evaluates county projects that go to the Board of Supervisors for approval? Can you rely on any county department, which is proposing a project and heavily invested in the project in various ways, to be objective? Does county have a law prohibiting its retiring officers and board members from taking a job with a political contributor? If not, should it? And shouldn’t someone point out that even if the runway were extended to 5,900 feet, it is unlikely that any pilot would be willing to fly a Gulfstream 550 or 650ER to China from Palomar without refueling because a 5,900 foot runway doesn’t provide sufficient safety margins for those aircraft when altitudes, temperature, headwinds, and delays at the arriving airport are taken into account.
Should Supervisor Horn on the record be telling the other supervisors how much the proposed retaining wall costs and how little it buys. Should he tell them the wall is not needed and the maximum distance the runway should be extended is 800 feet?
Can Supervisor Horn make Jesse Unruh proud?