SAN FRANCISCO — Extending San Francisco International Airport’s runways by filling in part of the bay could be consistent with smart growth depending on the increase in air travel during the next few decades.
But a panel of airport land use and growth experts said Thursday that has become harder to predict after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the resulting drop in air travel.
The idea of filling in between 500 and 800 acres of the bay has drawn criticism from neighbors, environmentalists and even windsurfers who say it will hurt the life and tides of San Francisco Bay.
Proponents of the plan say it’s consistent with smart growth – which calls for growing in and around urban centers instead of sprawling – because it would use existing transportation infrastructure.
Also, it would stall the need to build another airport on the fringes of the Bay Area.
But opponents say filling in the bay would further harm an already damaged resource and would cause an imbalance of housing and jobs on the San Francisco peninsula because a larger airport would bring more workers who would need more housing in an already crowded area.
Opponents also said the plan would only alleviate airport capacity problems for about 10 years. They point out planning has been done up to 2020, but it probably would take a decade to get approval and build any project.
Officials have proposed the expansion because the airport is plagued by delays, especially during foggy weather.
The airport has two sets of runways that intersect and are only 750 feet apart, making it difficult or impossible for planes to land simultaneously in bad weather.
The Federal Aviation Administration requires runways to be 4,300 feet apart for simultaneous landings in bad weather.
The plans would reconfigure the runways, increasing the distance between them, at an estimated cost of $2 billion to $3.5 billion.
But some opponents think it’s premature to build runways into the bay.
“I don’t think smart growth can coincide with building them now, before we know if the other (no-build) alternatives can work,” said panelist Stuart Cohen, chairman of the Bay Area Transportation and Land Use Coalition.
The plans are far from being finalized. The airport is a little more than halfway through the environmental studies for the plans and is considering other options that don’t include building into the bay.
After the environmental reviews, the plans will be open for public comment, followed by the necessary approval from 30 state and federal regulatory agencies.
Some of the no-build options include doing nothing, using technological advances to help manage operations and managing demand, such as with pricing regulations and other incentives.
Passenger volume at the airport has dropped since last month’s terrorist attacks, but airport officials believe the volume will increase by the time the runway project is ready for construction.
But it’s still hard to know how much that increase will be, said panelist Geoffrey Gosling, a professor in the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.
“The implications of recent events are not yet clear,” he said. “However, I think it would be very surprising if the forces that have caused air travel to grow in the past couple of years suddenly come to an end.”
Typically, about 105,000 passengers pass through the San Francisco airport every day, but in the week following the attacks, that number dropped by 40 percent to 50 percent.
A month later, the airport has about 25 percent fewer passengers than normal.
A plan completed late last year by a regional air transportation committee concludes that, in the next 20 years, there will be a 60 percent increase in air operations in the region, where there are three major airports. And at San Francisco International, another 63,000 people per day are expected by 2020.
“The thing we have to keep in mind is air travel is going to return,” said airport spokesman Ron Wilson. “It’s going to take a while, and we have to look long range and plan for the future.”