Brownout at SFO

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

Even SFO Director John Martin seemed to have misgivings; a press report three months ago said Martin had told staff he wanted to stall the runway expansion. The environmental impact report due this spring is based on pre-Sept. 11 air traffic numbers, after all, leaving a project based on these now-meaningless projections open to legal challenge.

In response, Brown promised to plow ahead using political force.

During last fall's campaign for Proposition D, both Brown and the Chamber of Commerce publicly supported the initiative. (What politician or interest group, after all, wants to publicly oppose giving voters more say?) At the time, the city's corporate leaders assumed Brown would be able to quickly fix the problem of potential voter opposition in San Francisco in the usual place for such fixing -- Sacramento. State law, after all, trumps municipal ordinance, and if Brown's friends in the Legislature passed a bill requiring the expansion, and the governor signed it, there would be little that San Francisco voters could do about it.

But months passed; nothing happened. Backers of the airport expansion became nervous, wondering whether Brown had forgotten them. Then came Wednesday's speech. He would provide state legislators the political cover of a Bay Area-wide election on the airport's future, he seemed to be telling corporate leaders that night. Then he'd use campaign contributions to put the fix in.

"It's in the embryonic stages," says mayoral spokeswoman Kandace Bender, when asked about the regional referendum idea. "A lot of people around the Bay Area talked to him about it. This has been bandied about for eight months. They had approached him about it. This is a regional facility used by everyone in the Bay Area, and perhaps it should be voted on by all the people."

The suffering associated with our current economic downturn certainly illustrates why San Francisco must keep job growth a top priority. It's also true that airline passengers arriving in San Francisco spend money, negotiate business deals, spawn links to other regional markets, and, thereby, greatly expand local economic opportunities. Airport officials say that air traffic is expected to double at SFO during the next 15 years. They say traffic will return to pre-Sept. 11 levels by year's end, and we need a $3.5 billion runway expansion to accommodate the load.

But San Francisco International Airport officials are the last people in the world to be trusted with economic or business projections, especially when the projections involve public expenditures. The facility is already struggling with massive budget shortfalls that are associated with the airport's propensity for overaggressive economic projection.

A few years ago airport Director John Martin, his director of operations, John Costas, and their accounting guru, Leo Fermin, envisioned San Francisco as the hub of a booming, integrated Pacific Rim by century's end. San Francisco's airport would become a global model for achieving profitability by turning airports into shopping malls, with the resulting extra revenue going into the city's coffers. They even set up an international service division, which they hoped would allow them to export their business vision by allowing SFO officials to lead the privatization of foreign airports. They spent hundreds of millions of dollars on an airport expansion, designed around this dream and focused on a huge new International Terminal full of restaurants and shops.

One need only sit in the desolate food court of that shining new terminal to see the results of hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of foolish SFO projections.

Even before the NASDAQ crashed in 2000, it was clear that Costas and Martin's dream was dead wrong. (The East Asian economy collapsed, after all, in 1998.) Mere months after the new terminal was completed in late 2000, concessionaires complained there wasn't enough traffic to keep their businesses afloat. Now, the airport finds itself with a $100 million budget shortfall as it attempts to restructure some $3 billion in debt.

"Meanwhile they're spending money like drunken sailors in an environment where we don't know if air travel will ever be the same in America," says Aaron Peskin, the city supervisor who sponsored last year's Proposition D. "To my mind, the budget shortfall is the warning light on the dashboard."

Then there's the issue of Willie Brown, and his friends, and his friends' business associates, and the entire smarmy crowd that has turned SFO construction projects into a San Francisco version of Ferdinand Marcos' Philippines. The total bill for the airport master plan, which includes construction of the new shopping mall/International Terminal, has inflated from an original budget of $1.9 million to $3 billion. Yet the architects of this debacle -- Brown, Martin, and Costas -- remain in their posts and are publicly insisting we need a $3 billion runway expansion, based again on their skill at financial projection.

In an ideal world, the decision of whether or not to fill in a mile of the bay to protect regional economic growth would involve a careful evaluation of benefits and costs; this is how all sound policy decisions are made, particularly when they involve environmental trade-offs.

In the case of the SFO runways, such sobriety has become impossible; evidence supporting the wisdom of proceeding with the project appears unreliable, and its main proponents -- Willie Brown and his airport officials -- have proven themselves to be completely untrustworthy. Betting $3 billion and a square mile of our bay on these people, and their studies, would be folly.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
San Francisco Concert Tickets
©2014 SF Weekly, LP, All rights reserved.