Viewpoints: County must face reality on Mather airport

Fifteen years ago, Sacramento County put forth a costly expansion plan for Mather Airport based on the premise that air cargo was going to grow rapidly and that available multipurpose airports would not be able to handle the additional volume. Mather was to be a cargo hub not just for this part of California, but for the entire Pacific Rim.

That vision was a mirage. Yet the revised Mather Airport Master Plan now before the county Board of Supervisors contains most of the major expansion items proposed during the era of delusion. It’s time for supervisors to put residents first and slam the brakes on this bureaucratic empire building.

The goal – discredited several years earlier by a Federal Aviation Administration report – was to create a major economic and commerce center. Facility upgrades costing $100 million were planned to accommodate cargo growth that never came. All of this was done without accounting for the economic damage to communities under the airport’s flight paths.

The negative impact of aircraft noise and pollution centers on three closely related factors – losses in property values, quality of life and economic competitiveness – and is exacerbated by the fact that a great deal of cargo moves at night. In 2008 – before residents concluded that filing complaints was a waste of time – cargo operations at Mather generated 8,072 noise complaints, 3,431 involving night flights.

The impact of jet aircraft on real estate values has been studied extensively. The results show losses to moderately priced homes as high as 19 percent, and even higher devaluation for higher-priced homes. The county has identified a roughly 200-square-mile area where large jet aircraft can be expected to operate below 3,000 feet. Assuming a mostly residential build-out, the decrease in property values could run in the billions. For example, with a 10 percent drop in values, a loss of $8 billion would occur if one-third of the 200 square miles were used for $400,000 homes at only five per acre. Local governments would lose more than $80 million each year in property taxes.

Mather has been a money loser for many years. It is now widely acknowledged that the predicted need for more cargo capacity was totally wrong. The FAA forecasts that Sacramento air cargo volume will grow by only 1.9 percent per year for the next 20 years.

The rationale for pressing ahead with cargo expansion at Mather has vanished. In fact, Mather is not needed for cargo at all. Managers are asking whether UPS, like its competitor FedEx, should fly out of Sacramento International Airport instead. The approved master plan for Sacramento International also calls for cargo expansion that will meet our needs for decades to come at a modest cost.

Locking in on an obsolete and detrimental plan is senseless. Mather needs a realistic plan – one that makes it an asset instead of a liability to nearby communities and a revenue producer instead of a financial drag. Step one toward a good plan is for county supervisors to kill the bad one before them.