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.

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.

There's a reason experienced bettors sometimes tear up their tickets before their horses reach the last furlongs. The body of a struggling horse looks for strength by digging into muscle groups beyond its legs. Its back convulses in waves. During the final moments, the strained horse fades. A track regular spots the laboring immediately and knows the race is over.

As he bets the final moments of his political career on a dishonest and demagogic campaign for airport runway expansion, Willie Brown's efforts appear similarly forced. Brown may not be able to amass the necessary cash and political capital to convince state legislators, the governor, and Bay Area voters that this is the proper time for the bay-fill plan. Odds-on gamblers know the smart wager here: Willie Brown will try, but won't be able, to get his nine-county bay-fill referendum into (much less out of) the starting gate, and will leave office without an airport runway to his name. Finally, then, San Francisco Bay Area residents will be able to tear up their tickets to the Willie Brown show, and consider regional transportation needs in an atmosphere driven a little less by political agendas, and a little more by common horse sense.

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