If you missed it, yesterday The Cardinal returned to guest post about San Bernardino International Airport and the scandal that led to its commercial terminal being built… and completely unused. Today, he looks into why that is.
At best it seems the San Bernardino International Airport (SBD) commercial terminal was built by people driven by willful wishful thinking. But still, it’s there, it’s ready to go, and any airline will get a heck of a deal. Terminal and landing fees are rock bottom relative to most big airports. A lot of people live near SBD. Put a 25 mile radius circle around the airport, there are 2.7mm people. Put a 50 mile radius circle around it, there are 9mm people. So why hasn’t SBD attracted an airline?
There are problems. While the Inland Empire is booming, the city of San Bernardino is troubled. 40-50 years ago, it was prosperous – dubbed an All-American city, it was the place where such American icons as McDonalds and Taco Bell got their start and the first city you came to on Route 66 after descending the Cajon Pass into the LA Basin. Today, it’s one of the poorest cities in Southern California and the San Bernardino brand name isn’t so great for potential passengers in the LA Basin. Ironically, part of the problem was the 1994 shutdown of Norton AFB (today’s SBD), which at one time supported a population (including dependents) of as many as 22,000 people. The poverty in the city also means that many of those who live closest have the least wherewithal to afford air travel.
But the bigger issue is that eccentric development had serious consequences, because the terminal is about as badly located as it could be.
A quick look at a map shows the problem – the commercial terminal is in the center of the rectangle formed by the freeways around SBD – I-215 to the west, I-10 along the south, and CA-210 on the north and east. The SBD terminal is essentially as far as it is possible to be from the freeways, the Southern California circulatory system. Yeah, that’s really dumb, because air travel is in significant part about convenience, and end-to-end travel time matters greatly. Before they fly, passengers need to get to the airport, and after they land, they need to get from airport to home. The shorter that journey, the better.
I-10 is the main east-west freeway through the LA basin, and from I-10 to SBD, the relevant road is Tippecanoe. From the I-10 eastbound exit onto Tippecanoe to the SBD terminal, there are 14 traffic lights and a railroad crossing totaling 15 opportunities to stop on the way to the airport after you exit the freeway. Tippecanoe is surrounded by warehouses, including a gigantic complex for the Stater Bros supermarket chain. So there are trucks everywhere and next to the freeway there’s also a Costco, motels and other traffic generators. Tippecanoe is hardly an empty free-wheeling boulevard down which to dash.
It’s little better from the other freeways. Coming eastbound along CA-210 to the north, it’s 12 traffic lights before the terminal. Coming northbound along CA-210 to the east, it’s 11 traffic lights. Coming southbound along I-215 to the west, it’s 16 traffic lights and a railroad crossing. However you try to get to SBD from a freeway, Google Maps says it’s 3-4 miles and about a 9 or 10 min drive from the freeway – and that’s at times of the day without congestion. That is a lot of street driving through a city with an iffy reputation.
By comparison, going westbound along I-10 to ONT, it’s only four traffic lights from the ONT exit to the ONT terminals – only three minutes and less than a mile according to Google. Once you get to the ONT I-10 exit, you’re more-or-less there because ONT is immediately to the south. ONT may be underserved, but it’s not for lack of access.
Whiffing on the one good terminal location
To be fair, access to SBD was always going to be challenging because the Santa Ana River runs along the south edge of the airport, and there’s a decent distance between the Santa Ana and I-10. The Santa Ana is dry most of the year, but the river and its “washes” (low lying areas into which it occasionally floods) are environmentally sensitive. So development to the south of the airport is tough, even though that’s where you’d want a terminal to be if you want access to I-10. Indeed, the primacy of access to I-10 was once well understood – in 1980, while Norton AFB was still in operation, a developer wanted to build a commercial terminal at Tippecanoe and I-10. The Air Force pushed back on this idea to protect the base – only to have it selected for shutdown in 1988.
There is one exception, however. At the western side of the southern edge of the airport is a warehouse complex immediately adjacent to the runway, most of it occupied by two Amazon buildings. This was constructed starting in 2008-2009. Prior to that, the land was vacant. Actually, back in the Air Force days, it was the base’s 18-hole golf course. Apparently it was important to have a place to relax after a busy day shipping draftees to Vietnam.
This location was, by far, the best possible site for an SBD commercial terminal. The location is a four-minute drive from I-10 along Tippecanoe and involves six traffic lights (and the railroad crossing). It’s even faster from I-10 via the Mountain View exit, but access to the Amazon site from I-10 via Mountain View was actually built as part of the Amazon warehouse project; it didn’t exist in 2008. Nonetheless, that site was still by far the best place for a passenger terminal at SBD in terms of access, and when SBIAA/IVDA started thinking about a commercial service in the early-to-mid 2000s, that land was still vacant.
No doubt Amazon also appreciates being close to I-10, but boxes don’t mind traffic lights and trucks and warehouses and a few extra miles nearly as much as does human cargo. The site SBD actually used for a terminal is surrounded by warehouses, so clearly it was at least within the realm of the possible to have used today’s commercial terminal location for warehouses and use the Amazon site for a terminal. Indeed, an air cargo base is being developed for the north side of SBD for what everyone assumes is Amazon. Woulda shoulda coulda. Oh well.
Though it still leaves the question as to whether SBD would ever attract commercial service even if it had good access. But to the extent it does, being close to a freeway is a big factor. “Build it and they will come” is a dangerous proposition, but if you build it where access is easy, you’re certainly better off than building it where access is hard. If they can’t find it, they certainly won’t come.
I tend to believe that as LAX and Orange County (SNA) run out of capacity and/or become more expensive, and as Southern California freeways become ever more congested, alternative airports like ONT and SBD will have their day. But for sure that day will come faster if passenger terminals at such airports are easy to access. ONT is in good shape, but stashing the SBD terminal as far from the freeways as possible was the worst thing the SBIAA could have done in that regard. Eight years of vacant terminal baking in the sun is proof, and there’s every chance it will continue to bake, vacant, for years to come, notwithstanding the bargain rates an airline would get at SBD.
Can anything be done?
It would take major investment to improve access to the current SBD terminal – to eliminate traffic lights (perhaps some kind of one-way system?), to increase speed limits, etc. It’s not hard to imagine that in the end it might cost more than re-locating the terminal elsewhere and turning over the existing space for more warehouses. It seems pretty unlikely that a limited-access road (i.e. mini freeway) could be built to the existing terminal from I-10, and that’s really what is needed to properly address the issue.
But the aforementioned problems with the Santa Ana River likely make another location a heavy lift. Assuming you could wave a magic wand and eliminate possible environmental issues, perhaps a site south of the runway at the east end, near/next to CA-210 might result in the best access, since in theory it could be immediately adjacent to a freeway, even if is further away from the vast bulk of the LA Basin (and Inland Empire) population to the west. Trading off a few more miles for direct freeway access might be worth it.
And if that’s not possible, then the next best place may be to the north and east of the runway, again as close to I-210 as possible, along 3rd St. But these are at best second-and-third best solutions relative to the one that the airport foreclosed when they whiffed on the location now occupied by Amazon, and built, instead, on what is almost certainly the worst location.
It turns out that when you empower people who have no idea what they’re doing, bad outcomes can ensue, even if that’s not their intent. What happened at San Bernardino might not have been criminal, but it was surely a mistake. Eight years of vacant terminal has already shown that.
If you missed the first part of this story, you can find it here.