[Metroactive News&Issues]

[ Metro | Metroactive Central | Archives ]

Wings of Desire

Officials are quietly at work on a plan to drastically expand San Jose International, while the mayor and the City Council remain mum. The scheme which is about to fall from the sky could change the valley's quality of life forever.

By Cecily Barnes

IT'S MORNING ASSEMBLY at Washington Elementary School. Nearly 400 students stand in a semicircle around Principal Al Moreno, who leads a few verses of "I've Been Working on the Railroad." Moreno calls the name of a young girl who trots excitedly to the podium, and the whole school sings "Happy Birthday" to her. Moreno calls three students forward to lead the Pledge of Allegiance. Microphone in hand, the girls begin to speak, but they're forced to pause while a roaring jet makes its way across the sky above the schoolyard. They stand there waiting for five or six seconds. The plane passes.

"I pledge allegiance to the flag," the girls begin again. The rest of the school joins in. The next jet does not fly by until the students are in their classrooms, approximately 15 minutes later. But for some students, even classroom walls do not block out the noisy distraction.

"We don't have air conditioning, so we have to have the door open," explains first-grade teacher April Thomison. "It gets really loud. We just stop sometimes and wait for the jets to go over."

A month earlier a different airport-related scene takes shape: 400 seats in the council chambers are occupied and nearly 100 people bunch around the room. Down the center aisle a long line has formed--some 50 people wait to address the planning commissioners about the issue at hand, expansion of San Jose International Airport.

A man approaches the podium. He tells his name and address and then ruefully echoes what ghostlike voices told Kevin Costner in the baseball fantasy Field of Dreams. "If you build it, they will come," he says.

Weeks after the hearing, Steven Tedesco, president of the San Jose Chamber of Commerce, sits in his immense office, chuckling from the other side of a polished conference table.

"Even if you don't build it, they will come," Tedesco says of the business travelers he anticipates will throng to the valley in the years ahead. "And where are they all going to go?"

On June 3, San Jose's 10 councilmembers will make a decision that will irreversibly affect the livability of the city and of Silicon Valley, to upgrade and expand the city's international airport, possibly doubling its capacity. Under the plan now poised to win approval, a plane will take off or land every two minutes, 526 times a day. That's a 78 percent increase over today's airport traffic--230 more flights a day.

Whether they vote for the most ambitious expansion plan or one of two more modest projects, one thing is for certain: The quality of life in this valley will never be the same. The air will get smoggier, traffic thicker and noise more intense.

And while this crucial--and irrevocable--vote is less than a week away, most San Jose politicians have remained uncharacteristically silent. [See related story, page 19.] Only two councilmembers, Charlotte Powers and David Pandori, have taken a stance--she's strongly for, he's adamantly against. Even the mayor, whose own Rose Garden neighborhood has taken a lead role in opposing the plan, has refused to say whether she believes an expanded airport would be good or bad for San Jose.

Meanwhile, the airport's runway is crumbling. If it isn't repaired, officials fear that the dangerous landing pad could even result in an accident. But the panic to fix the problem has resulted in an opportunistic frenzy, with the most ambitious proposal looking like a fait accompli. Critics say that's because airport staff manipulated the situation so there is only one option: Give them their overblown expansion or shut down the airport completely for nine months.

Citizen groups also charge that elected officials have stayed away from the airport debate because they care more about the airlines and the business community than they do about neighborhoods.


What does the San Jose City Council think about the plan?


Airport, The Sequel

THIS IS NOT the first time hungry schemes for a bigger airport have taken hold in San Jose. More than a decade ago, the airport's then aviation director, Raul Regalado, pitched a master plan to build five new terminals and a parking garage. He started a discussion that still continues--a renovated jet center, he said, would mean more flights, more people and more money. Already, airlines were lined up for more space in San Jose.

In 1988, expansion fever picked up pace when American Airlines decided to locate its West Coast hub in San Jose, tripling its flight schedule. Regalado hired specialists to detail the expansion plans, known as Project Case.

In the meantime, neighborhood residents caught the backlash of stepped-up jet traffic. Driven to the edge in 1991 by too many planes thundering overhead, neighbors organized into a group called Citizens Against Airport Pollution (CAAP).

By this time Regalado had been entangled in a scandal when contractors hired to maintain airport shuttle buses were caught defrauding the city. Regalado resigned. New aviation director Ralph Tonseth took over, picked up the pieces of Project Case and presented it to the council.

But when Tonseth showed up to pitch his plans to the council, so did CAAP, complaining about noise, traffic and air pollution. The council heeded CAAP's concerns and sent Tonseth back to the drawing board to create a more moderate plan, which he did, naming the second plan Alternative A.

While Alternative A was being drafted, the council decided to begin construction of a runway, and CAAP threatened to sue. Lengthy talks followed and a deal was struck: The city could construct the runway if Tonseth went back to draft yet a third option, Alternative B.

While the bureaucracy drudged along, American Airlines ditched its hub in San Jose. But Tonseth continued--and continues--to push and promote Project Case.

According to the official line, all of the options are still on the table: Project Case, Alternative A and Alternative B, plus a no-growth option called No Project. The options range from leaving the airport as is to exploding it to the property's edge.

Tonseth and airport planner Cary Greene strongly argue that only Project Case is feasible because only it can host the onslaught of travelers which San Jose can expect in its bright future. And repairs to the runway, through bureaucratic fiat, have been tied to the Project Case alternative.

Plane Folks

AVIATION DIRECTOR Ralph Tonseth came to San Jose from Fresno in 1990. With the scraps of Regalado's expansion at his feet, opportunity hit Tonseth upside the head. A professional and cordial man, Tonseth has swung the political stick at breakfast meetings, Chamber gatherings and private industry settings across town. He welcomes conversations with the CAAP president, nods at her concerns, sympathizes with her worries--and then proceeds according to the Project Case plan.

"He always makes time to talk to me," says CAAP's Lenora Porcella. "He's always very prompt and he's always cordial. But he doesn't fix the noise-report line, and the public keeps complaining about the curfew penetrations."

While Tonseth and Greene quietly make plans and San Jose politicians look the other way, some citizens remain troubled.

Since the idea for the $809 million project--which will be completely funded by ticket taxes, revenue bonds and the airlines--resurfaced four years ago, neighborhood groups have organized dozens of meetings and a massive letter-writing campaign--thousands of letters have been mailed to councilmembers and newspapers. In just the past week, three anti-growth protests have been staged. These citizens fear a gridlocked airspace above San Jose where jet roar drowns conversation over outdoor barbecues and patio dinners. They fear air dark with pollution and traffic that never stops.

Greene admits that the airport has come up with solutions to only some of the neighborhood concerns.

"The three big impacts for airports are noise, traffic and air quality," Greene said in January. "On all three of these there are significant impacts. Some of those can be mitigated and some of them cannot."

While acknowledging that air will get smoggier, traffic thicker and noise more intense, Project Case's supporters point out that all development has impacts. And they say this development is nothing short of necessary.

A modern, three-terminal airport would benefit the entire valley, they say. Everyday travelers would have access to more flights. The economy would get a boost from the pumped-up air traffic.

"There are many planning issues that have impacts which cannot be mitigated," Councilmember Charlotte Powers says. "This will not be the first."

Powers, council liason to the Airport Commission, sits in her modest office behind a mountain of memoranda. She offers very little, answering questions with straightforward, brief responses.

She supports Project Case "absolutely." She supports it because the city is growing, the population is growing, there's a need. In response to all of the environmental backlash, Powers says she thinks the airport staff has done a great job of addressing it.

The most important thing, she says, is to plan for the future, which she sees as bright and big.

"This is a world which relies on air transportation to move people and goods," Powers says. "This project keeps us on a competitive edge, economically, and meets the demands of most citizens."

But the many San Jose residents who bought their homes when travelers still climbed steps to board airplanes, when Silicon Valley was Santa Clara Valley and chips were something that came from cows, are afraid that if the airport shoots upward and outward to become a high-tech transportation center, what's left of San Jose's highly prized quality of life will be stamped out completely.

The Air Down Here: Eight-year-old Eric Allen protests airport expansion in front of San Jose City Hall.

Photo by Christopher Gardner

Rocket Science

IN 1960, SANTA CLARA COUNTY had 78,000 acres of orchards. Today, 60,000 acres of those orchards have been clearcut and paved to make room for the high tech industry. That industry needs mobility, growth advocates say, or it'll do what American Airlines did and jet.

If San Jose is to maintain its edge in the increasingly competitive high-tech market, it's crucial that its infrastructure is up to date, Tedesco says.

"We have a lot of Fortune 500 companies headquartered in this area--3Com, Cisco, Adobe. They're probably not going to pick up and move unless the airport starts shrinking," Tedesco admits. "But when they decide, 'Should we expand here or should we relocate to Dallas,' the number and frequency of flights around the country will be extremely important to them. They will ask themselves, 'Does this community have the infrastructure we need?' "

In 1997, infrastructure means an ultramodern jetport, sleek automatic walkways, silvery counters, electric toilets. Businessmen will be able to come and go, families will visit and vacation, jobs will flourish, the economy will explode and San Jose will complete its rags-to-riches story of a suburban city that hit the big league. Or, as some airport opponents see it, a once well-planned city turned into a little Los Angeles.

Opponents say Tonseth and Greene maneuvered their favored alternative into place by using spurious numbers. In calculating how many bag-toting travelers could use the SJ airport under each of the plans, only Project Case made the grade, according to their calculations. But another set of numbers, put together by Councilmember David Pandori, shows that Alternative A would be entirely adequate.

Tonseth and Greene have numbers which demonstrate that Alternative A couldn't accommodate more than 13.1 million travelers, while Project Case would allow for 17.6 million. Pandori, whose district includes downtown San Jose and who has taken up the cause of the neighborhoods, comes to different conclusions. He has compiled figures showing that the more moderate proposal would support 14.3 million travelers--which he says is ample for projected demands.

The conflicting sets of numbers were calculated by the same source, an airport consulting group called TRA/BV. This group came up with one set of numbers for San Jose's master plan and another set of numbers for a regional airport study they were commissioned to do for the Metropolitan Transportation Commision. Had the regional study figures been used, Alternative A would be adequate.

"By using the numbers they have been using, they've been able to phrase the issue such that only one alternative [Project Case] meets the market demand, which then puts a lot of pressure on the council and business community to get behind Project Case," Pandori says. "That's wielding a lot of influence.

"If they were to use numbers that accurately reflected current-day situations, then they are going to lose the argument. It would be more compelling to the council to approve the middle of the range."

Tonseth and Greene stand by their figures, arguing that the numbers came from two completely different types of studies.

"We don't play around with numbers," Greene says. "We went through a process that's professional and came up with the numbers we did."

While San Jose's mayor and all 10 councilmembers are privy to the discrepancies in the facts they are reviewing before next week's vote, only Charlotte Powers has responded. She insists that the city's numbers are correct.

The Air Up There

THE AMOUNT OF POLLUTION put out by a DC-10 when taking off is equal to that put out by 21,530 cars traveling at 30 mph. One two-minute 747 takeoff is equal to operating more than two million lawnmowers for 20 minutes, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

While the levels of air pollution from cars and industry have stabilized or decreased owing to Clean Air Act requirements, aircraft continue to emit more and more pollution with each passing year, studies confirm.

The Federal Aviation Administration remains lax in its enforcement of pollution laws on aircraft. Unlike cars, airplanes are not required to get any sort of follow-up smog checks. Airports are also exempt from the federal law that requires other toxic sources to report emissions.

Nevertheless, San Jose airport staff have come to the remarkable conclusion that airport pollution will decrease once the airport is expanded to its maximum capacity.

"Carbon monoxide pollution," airport staff reports claim, "will actually decrease with expansion of facilities because of less idling time by aircraft."

Frank Schiavo, who has lectured on environmental issues at San Jose State for the past 22 years, says he has no idea how they could have come to that conclusion.

"They might be able to get carbon monoxide to decrease if all-new jet aircraft are phased in," Schiavo surmised, "but there are many pollutants that come out of aircraft.

"Air quality is going to suffer," he says bluntly.

In fact, the airport's own environmental impact report admits that even if carbon monoxide pollution were to decrease, a slew of other pollutants will increase. In addition, thousands more travelers will be driving cars, renting cars and hailing cabs and limousines.

"It doesn't even make common sense," Councilmember Pandori says. "If you're doubling the number of cars going out there and you're doubling the frequency of air flights, there's more stuff coming into the air."

No Exit

IT'S TUESDAY AT 5:30pm. Natha Toor sits in his Yellow Cab at the San Jose airport. Except for an occasional car or shuttle, the roads circling the terminal are quiet. Toor says Tuesday is one of the lightest days for traffic--nothing compared to the gridlock on weekends and Fridays.

Toor gets a fare and pulls away from the terminal, headed for downtown. It's 5:38pm.

The drive is clear until the Guadalupe Parkway, where traffic stops.

"Usually it's bad on Guadalupe," Toor tells his fare. "Maybe it clears up after midnight, but after 5am it starts to get bad again."

Toor gets on Highway 87, and traffic stays backed up until he exits at Santa Clara Street. He drops his fare in front of the Hilton Hotel. It's 5:58pm. Four miles in 20 minutes.

Toor's fare pays him $15, almost a $4 tip. Back at the airport other drivers discuss what will happen to traffic if the airport is expanded.

"We want the business," driver Dan Walsh says, "but they're going to have to change the traffic patterns. There are times when it takes half an hour to get from the Red Lion Inn to the cab staging area just north of the terminal," a distance of less than one mile.

"Guadalupe's always the worst," Richard Ringey adds. "On a Friday evening, anywhere from two till 10, the airport road toward Coleman will be absolute gridlock."

There are times, as anyone who has been in or out of the airport during peak hours knows, when it can take 20 minutes to get onto Highway 880, which practically borders the airport.

The EIR says traffic problems will be mitigated by expanding Highway 87, putting in turn lanes, stop lights and exits. These projects will begin as soon as the master plan takes effect.

Natha Toor and other cabdrivers say that while those proposals might help the existing problem, all the new traffic will only make a bad problem worse.

Flight Pathology

IT'S HIGH NOON in one of San Jose's oldest, most beautiful neighborhoods--the Rose Garden. In the area's celebrated park, perfectly manicured lawns border an enormous fenced-in rose garden, where lavender, magenta and gold blooms stretch up to the sun. Children kick soccer balls across the grass. Elderly folks stroll among the roses. Couples kiss atop picnic blankets.

San Jose's Mayor Susan Hammer represented the area on the City Council for years. The Rose Garden was hard hit by stepped-up jet noise in 1988. Neighbors there complained that increased jet traffic rained soot on the neighborhood's lovely roses. Hammer's aide, Margie Fernandes, now a councilwoman, began fielding complaints about the noisy jets.

Hammer told the neighbors she could sympathize--she lived in the area herself. But she had bigger items on her agenda. She was running for mayor. And CAAP members were on her side. CAAP president Lenora Porcella and former San Jose mayor Janet Gray Hayes (who is also a Rose Garden resident and CAAP member) both worked on Hammer's campaign.

"I licked envelopes, wrote letters, answered phones and attended functions," Porcella says. "Not all of us can write out a big check; sometimes you have to just roll up your sleeves and get to work."

Porcella was impressed by Hammer's campaign platform--to reach out to the neighborhoods.

But Porcella, Gray Hayes and other neighbors were not the only ones supporting the aspiring mayor.

At a glance, several of Hammer's campaign contributions can be traced to airline sources. Her relationship to air chains is no secret--Southwest Airline and Reno Air partially sponsored this year's State of the City address.

According to mayoral spokesmanKevin Pursglove, Hammer is still looking at the contents of the various proposals, but is "dead set against any further examination of environmental reviews on this."

In response to this fact, Porcella speaks with a sense of regret.

"She was my councilperson for many years. We were neighbors. Susan and Margie have known about the airport noise since 1988. I'm disappointed that neither of them have taken leadership roles to balance the need for a new airport with the concerns of the neighbors."

Other CAAP members say that all the councilmembers have been bought, or at least been the recipients of business-interest campaign cash.

"When you hear about all the money they give, it's like, how can we compete with that?" Porcella asks.

Sonic Doom

APRIL THOMISON is one of four Washington Elementary School teachers who teaches in a portable building near the flight path of the airport. While the main building shelters some students from jet noise, the portables do not.

"When planes go overhead we have to stop everything," Moreno says. "Our concern is if they're going to be going by more often."

They will--230 more times a day.

The airport's Greene says the airport plans to test the noise levels at Washington School and provide free soundproofing if it proves necessary. It will do the same in other airport-side neighborhoods, where jets blazing overhead already interrupt telephone conversations, deposit soot on backyard apple trees and fill the air with the stench of kerosene.

The Federal Aviation Administration mandates that all homes plagued with intolerable noise from a nearby airport receive free insulation and double-paned glass windows. The agency sets levels for what it defines as intolerable. But the airport is cooking the books on its noise-pollution violations as well, CAAP members says.

The Federal Aviation Administration calculates airport noise by averaging over a 24-hour period, seven days a week, 365 days a year. But the airport is closed between 11:30pm and 6:30am, CAAP officials point out. So by including those six hours in the average, officials effectively water down the total, making it seem as if less noise were coming from the airport than actually is.

The FAA doesn't even dispute the fact that their method skews numbers.

"There's no way everyone is going to be pleased, no matter what guideline or measurement is used," says FAA public affairs specialist Mitch Barker. "Airports are noisy. Planes have to take off and land, and they fly over people's houses to do that. It's part of operating an airport. An airport is not a library."

CAAP members counter that they shouldn't have to be prisoners in their own homes. They also complain that planes regularly violate the airport's 11:30pm curfew, disturbing their sleep. Tonseth confirms that one flight is regularly scheduled into San Jose after curfew, at midnight.

While that problem keeps some people awake at night, it is good for the city as a whole, proponents say.

Chamber of Commerce president Steven Tedesco asks the rhetorical question: "Should 1.2 million people suffer, not being able to have an improved airport, when we in fact live with noise all the time?"

Councilmember Powers also says she is trying to look at the big picture.

"I'm not just thinking economically," Powers says. "California is growing, and this is looking at tomorrow. We have to do everything we can for the neighbors within reason, but we have to consider the 10 million people."

[ Metro | Metroactive Central | Archives ]

From the May 29-June 4, 1997 issue of Metro

This page was designed and created by the Boulevards team.
Copyright © 1997 Metro Publishing, Inc.