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Air Traffic Control

[whitespace] airport traffic Rough Ride to the Airport: Proponents of the airport traffic mitigation initiative point out that driving to San Jose International Airport during peak hours is already a nightmare. After the airport expansion, which is expected to double the number of flights taking off, they predict the daily car jam will be intolerable.

Christopher Gardner

A citizens initiative would force San Jose Airport to deal with snarled streets before taking off with its massive expansion

By Cecil Barnes

THE SAN JOSE GIANTS game starts in 10 minutes, and people take turns jaywalking across Alma Avenue to get to Municipal Stadium. Nobody has politics on their mind except 29-year-old Kelly Kline. Clipboard in hand, her brown hair pinned back in barrettes, Kline beckons passersby to sign her petition to have airport traffic eased before the massive expansion scheduled for next year.

One hustling fan slows down to shout over his shoulder, "I support the airport!"

"We do, too," Kline yells back pleadingly. "We just want something to be done about the traffic." The man disappears into the game, but Kline stays, rushing against the clock for signatures.

Kline and other volunteers have been racing to gather 16,513 signatures to move a ballot initiative drafted by outgoing City Councilman David Pandori, San Jose resident Chip Evans and former Airport Commission chairperson Leslie Moreland.

The threesome pieced together a set of demands requiring major traffic improvements before the third airport terminal is built. Without these additions and extensions, traffic at San Jose airport will be intolerable, Pandori says. The proof is in the plans, he offers, but nobody's bothered to look.

Now Pandori, Evans and Moreland are soliciting San Jose voters to second their sentiment and force the city, via the initiative process, to fix the foreboding traffic nightmare. If enough people sign their petitions by June 30, the Airport Traffic Relief Initiative will appear on the November ballot, calling for bigger and better roads around the new facility.

On June 10, 1997, the $809 million expansion--the city's biggest public works project ever--slid through council chambers with a yes vote. Most councilmembers admit they didn't read the entire 622-page document specifying every new chair, gas tank and road improvement. But if they'd given the report even a semi-careful skimming, Pandori says, they might have been alarmed by chart 3.3-49, which shows that by the year 2010, every major intersection surrounding the airport will be a "stop-and-go operation, total breakdown possible."

The city rates intersections from A to F. According to the plan, by 2010 every intersection around the airport will rate an F. In fact, the intersection at Airport Parkway and Airport Boulevard would rate an M, if such a grade existed. The Coleman Avenue and Airport Boulevard intersection would rate a J.

According to the city, at level E, "it takes more than one cycle to get through the intersection 90 percent of the time."

(Currently, 41 level F intersections exist throughout the entire city of San Jose. Of those, 14 could be classified G, and two could be H.)

Tonseth and the nine councilmembers who voted for the expansion respond that traffic is a consequence of growth, and little can be done to prevent it.

"This is a big city, and we may not be able to have all A intersections," says Councilwoman Charlotte Powers, who lives on Santa Teresa Boulevard. "There are times when it takes me five minutes to back out of my driveway."

Mayor Susan Hammer seconds this sentiment. "There are level F intersections all over this city," she says. "Do I find them acceptable? It's just a fact of life."

And just because the traffic's going to be bad, Tonseth says, doesn't mean it's the airport's fault. "We can mitigate to the extent to which we cause traffic, but we can't take care of the world moving along," he says. "That's what they're asking us to do."

Tonseth sits in a leather chair in his second-story office with a picturesque view of San Jose International's runways. As might be expected, he has a different take on the traffic issue than Evans and Moreland.

"In every major project approved by the city, there are also things that are not mitigatable," Tonseth says. "There is no question that North San Jose has a general traffic deficiency, but the airport is not the cause of it, nor can it be the cure. Where were they when Cisco was expanding, or 3COM, and what about the Town and Country project? Why aren't they down fighting those projects?"

But intersections that look like parking lots should be addressed no matter who's at fault, Pandori says. And the seven million additional travelers flying in and out of San Jose will definitely exacerbate any pre-existing problem. Only so much can be sacrificed to progress, he says, before people start looking for a better place to progress.

Politics of Place

CHIP EVANS MAKES his living by scouting the crème de la crème of high-tech workers and convincing top-notch engineers to pack up the family and move here. Gridlock around the San Jose airport, he says, makes his job harder.

"A lot of times, the first thing I'll hear out of people's mouths is 'Is the traffic always like that?' " Evans says. "The whole experience of flying out is the litmus test of whether or not they're going to take the job. Their experience of the airport and their imagination of what it's going to be like as a business executive flying in and out is all crucial. At some point, no matter how great the career opportunity is, what they give up in terms of quality of life makes it not worth it."

Evans believes that eventually, horrible traffic will drive people from the valley. "We have put together a very simple, straightforward initiative to be included in the city's laws to remedy this problem," he says earnestly. "Traffic and transit improvements that are needed to accommodate the number of people that are expected to use the airport should be made before the people arrive."

The initiative fits onto a single piece of paper containing four projects, two caveats and plenty of white space. First off, planners would have to hit the books and raise the grades of the four intersections surrounding the airport from Fs, Js and Ms to at least Es. The initiative doesn't specify how the intersections should be fixed or where to find some money.

"We're leaving that up to the traffic experts," Evans says.

At this, Tonseth guffaws. "Then why don't they leave the whole thing up to the experts?" he mutters.

Second, the initiative calls for an expansion of the Coleman Avenue/I-880 interchange by adding a southbound lane on Coleman. This project would require approval, funding and action by Caltrans, which controls all state highways. Tonseth argues that would make the process impossible to complete in a reasonable time frame.

The initiative also requires a rail line connecting the existing light rail system with the airport. A rail line could mean an extended light rail or a less expensive monorail or people-mover--just so long as it was out of the flow of traffic.

"We already offer a free bus service and are currently engaged in a joint study with VTA that should be done in about a year and a half," Tonseth says. "The study may show that buses, as we're doing now every 10 minutes, are more efficient."

Finally, Highway 87 must be completed, a project that's already in the works. However, it must be totally done before the terminal is built.

In fact, every one of these projects must be finished before the new terminal is begun.

Money Matters

TONSETH GETS FLUSTERED when talking about the problems and holdups the initiative could create. He cringes at its mandate that the airport foot the bill whenever possible. San Jose International, like all U.S. airports, is restricted by the FAA from spending money on anything but itself. Because of this, projects not exclusively assisting the airport would have to find money from a different source.

Evans says that, nevertheless, the airport and city should take care of traffic.

"We've struggled hard to be moderate and not create any new requirements that are impossible to do," he says.

Ralph Tonseth, Councilwoman Charlotte Powers, Mayor Susan Hammer and Chamber of Commerce president Steve Tedesco laugh at this statement. In their minds, the Airport Traffic Relief Initiative isn't about traffic at all but about halting the airport expansion altogether.

"It's their way of making sure the airport won't expand," Powers says bluntly. Hammer seconds this notion. "The initiative is designed to oppose any expansion of the airport."

Tonseth explains that without a set cash supply or a definite agreement from Caltrans, meeting the requirements of the initiative will be almost impossible.

"If there's no general-fund money and there's things the airport can't pay for and there's no funding from anywhere else, then where's the money going to come from?" Tonseth asks, holding up his hands. "Maybe Bill Gates will put it up."

Pandori responds that if the airport needs to find funding badly enough, it will. He points to the San Francisco Airport's funding of the 101 offramp that leads to the airport, as well the airport's $200 million contribution to the $1.2 billion expansion of BART.

"It doesn't seem like a stone's throw away from that for San Jose to do some funding of its own," Evans says.

Tonseth responds by citing FAA jargon which wouldn't let San Jose International contribute cash to traffic projects because of circumstances different from those at the SFO. Pandori and Evans say they don't think Tonseth has lobbied the FAA hard enough.

The tension between traffic and development has even affected the mayoral race. When candidate Ron Gonzales announced his opposition to the initiative, former Mayor Janet Gray Hayes rescinded her endorsement of Gonzales. She says she won't endorse anyone else, at least for now.

Meanwhile, the 2,000-member group Citizens Against Airport Pollution (CAAP) anxiously awaits the verdict in its lawsuit against the city of San Jose, alleging that the expansion plan didn't adequately address environmental impacts. CAAP president Lenora Porcella says the judge will announce his decision before three months are up.

If CAAP wins the suit, the bigger, slicker, economy-pumping airport in the heart of San Jose will have to wait a little bit longer. And if the airport-traffic initiative lands a spot on the November ballot, San Jose voters will decide what will happen next.

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From the May 7-13, 1998 issue of Metro.

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