Civic leaders across the nation give an understandable priority in transportation planning to alleviating the distress of commuters. After all, commuters vote, and angry commuters tend to vote against incumbents. Yet a region's transportation system must also be designed to efficiently move the goods we consume as well as those we produce. Thatís a huge burden. The U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics reports that every one of us generates about 40 tons of freight each year.
Meeting a regionís goods movement requirements involves much more than ensuring that the shelves at local grocery stores are regularly restocked. In today's global economy with its burgeoning overseas markets, far-flung supply chains and just-in-time delivery schedules, reliable transportation links to the rest of the world have grown indispensable to any region presuming to remain economically competitive. And, considering that some 40 percent of the value of internationally traded goods these days is shipped by air, staying competitive increasingly means having ready access to an airport with planes departing every day for faraway places.
So where's San Diego stand in this regard?
San Diego has long relied on Los Angeles International (LAX) for its air links to overseas markets. That de facto strategy may have seemed satisfactory in the past, even though it did add considerably to shipping costs and may have discouraged some businesses from locating in San Diego. But as LAX becomes more and more congested and as the surface routes between San Diego and Los Angeles become less and less reliable, that old strategy is growing more and more tenuous. And that is an especially perilous prospect for the kinds of industry San Diego most wants to attract and retain.
Because it costs substantially more to ship goods by air than by sea or land, air-freighted items tend to be products with high value-to-weight ratios. Since that describes much of the stuff manufactured by high-technology industries, it shouldnít really come as much of a surprise that, as federal trade data indicate, more of Californiaís $115 billion merchandise export trade goes by air than by sea and land combined. (Up in Silicon Valley, industryís dependence on air cargo is even more pronounced. Thatís reflected in data showing that air cargoís share of exports from the San Francisco Customs District was 74.9 percent in 2004.)
One conclusion that can safely be teased from the available data is that the more high-tech a regionís industrial base, the greater its need is going to be for reliable and economical air links to national and international markets. In the global economy of the 21st century, building a better mousetrap won't prompt the world to beat a path to your door, unless there is a two-mile long runway in your front yard.
Building a new regional airport or significantly expanding the capabilities of Lindbergh Field is not going to be easy. Clearly, not every community is up to that kind of challenge. Some communities Ė even some not too far to the north of San Diego -- canít or simply wonít connect the dots between the transportation services they want and the investments and trade-offs required to provide those services. But, as Californiaís second city, San Diego canít afford to make the same mistake.