Brownout at SFO

Mayor's attempt to end-run city voters on runways-in-bay reflects dimming of his political star

At about 10 minutes past the mixed green salad, halfway through a plate of stuffed chicken, some 1,000 gourmands at the annual San Francisco Chamber of Commerce luncheon got a glimpse of a different Willie Brown, at least different from the one seen recently. This was the 1980s Willie, the power broker who was once able to announce the future of California's political landscape, then make that future so.

During a keynote address before chamber guests, Brown lambasted city supervisors, citizens' groups, and leftist gadflies of every stripe with old-style aplomb: "There is a group of people out there who call themselves environmentalists; by that I mean they aren't real environmentalists. They wish the environment will remain as it is, and that the world will go to hell in a handbasket."

He boasted of his ability to pull in favors from on high, in the manner of the old Prince Willie: "I have the support of Governor Davis; I just got back from Washington where I gained Transportation Secretary Norm Mineta's support."

And, in his traditional way, Willie Brown shook those present down: "It will take a major, major effort. I'd like you to be present, and to be generous when called upon."

Willie Brown was jabbing like Ali; he was running like Secretariat; after weeks in which he'd appeared to have entered an era of irrelevant political dotage, Brown was back in the arena again: His final major act as mayor, it appeared, would be to build $3.5 billion worth of new, widely spaced runways at SFO by filling in part of San Francisco Bay.

In his speech Wednesday, which a Chronicle reporter heard but apparently did not fully grasp, Brown sketched the rough outlines of a plan to end-run Proposition D, a ballot measure passed last year that gives city voters the right to review major bay-fill projects. Brown's plan appears to involve passing a state law that would put the SFO runway extension to a Bay Area-wide (rather than merely citywide) vote. Brown would then outspend environmentalists in a regional election that would dilute the impact of liberal San Francisco voters -- and win.

It's an almost magical vision, but there are reasons to wonder whether there is any Willie magic left.

The Bay Area-wide initiative Brown proposed in his Wednesday speech would put a sitting mayor in the politically unseemly position of openly defying the will of San Francisco voters, who approved last fall's Proposition D by a 75-to-25-percent margin.

This steamroller approach would require the mayor to convince Bay Area residents of the wisdom of rosy economic projections and analysis put forward by officials at the airport, at a time when massive 2002 budget shortfalls at SFO have shown airport officials to suffer a clear lack of economic expertise.

Perhaps most important, such a campaign would require convincing Sacramento legislators to embrace a mammoth Willie Brown political initiative, at a moment when the world just may be completely exhausted with the old man and his old ways.


Even if one is willing to consider the idea of expanding the capacity of our airport for future economic growth -- as I am -- it's hard to look at the ongoing campaign to put 300 to 700 acres' worth of dry land into our bay without feeling a strong desire to wash one's hands.

SFO officials wish to fill a square mile or more of the bay, and then build new runways on the new land, allowing the airport to handle more traffic, especially in bad weather. Now, because the airport's parallel runways are separated by just 750 feet, the airport must close one of them on foggy days, creating delays. Without the expansion, Brown and his business and labor backers say, weather delays will worsen, constraining Bay Area air travel and, eventually, hurting the local economy.

During his speech Wednesday, Brown said analysts hired by the airport had considered every alternative to the bay-fill plan, including a shift of some traffic to Oakland and San Jose. "We considered the possibility of merging airports in Oakland and San Francisco and determined that it's not possible," Brown said. Some opponents of the construction proposal floated the idea of using modern air-traffic-control technology to lessen or eliminate the need for runway expansion; the consulting firm debunked that idea as well. Transit experts suggested that money for a runway expansion might be better spent building a high-speed train connecting the Bay Area with Los Angeles and Sacramento, cutting Bay Area air traffic by at least 10 percent. We're all for a new rail line, airport officials said, but we'll still need the runway.

But given the rapidity with which all challenges to the runway construction plan have been rejected, critics have begun to accuse Mayor Brown's professional explainers of seeking evidence for a conclusion the mayor had already set in concrete: New runways must be built on new land created by filling the bay -- at any cost.

Last year, skeptical San Francisco voters passed Proposition D, and state Sen. Jackie Speier successfully sponsored a bill that gave voters in her San Mateo County district veto power over any airport expansion involving local land. Meanwhile, in December, four key agencies warned airport officials they must convincingly explain exactly why they were proposing to fill the bay for new runways, or risk having the plan rejected. In a letter to the city, top officials with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Bay Conservation and Development Commission, and the Bay Area Regional Water Quality Board said that it seemed unclear what the airport hoped to accomplish with its runway expansion plan.

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