July 1, 2004 - From the July, 2001 issue

Which Way, LA?'s El Toro Airport Town Hall: When Does Regional Benefit Outweigh Local Opposition?

The controversy over the El Toro airport has shaped Orange County politics for years as families, friends and neighbors split over whether the old El Toro Marine Base should be converted to a regional airport or a great park. As supporters lobby for a transportation center, park activists gather signatures to put a park initiative on the March ballot. The outcome will transform the County, impacting the future of all of Southern California. KCRW's Which Way, LA? recently traveled to O.C. to bring together politicians and grassroots activists from both sides to hear their arguments.

Warren Olney

We're talking today about an issue that has divided Orange County since the Marines pulled out of El Toro in 1993. On stage [here at UC Irvine] we have two guests on each side of the issue.

The fate of El Toro will be of tremendous importance to the entire region. It could impact LAX, Ontario Airport, Long Beach and John Wayne Airports. It has ramifications not just for the tens of millions of travelers and cargo carriers, but for all of the people who live near those transportation facilities, as well as the people who live near El Toro. At the root of the issue is projected growth. The questions are: Who should reap the benefits? Who should suffer the consequences? [Why an airport at El Toro? And conversely, why a regional park?]

Charles Smith

Orange County Supervisor, 1st District

The economics is the main reason [the El Toro Airport should be built.] Orange County is a very powerful economic body. If we were a country, we would be the 31st largest country in the world from a gross national product standpoint. Our economy would be roughly equivalent to Greece, Portugal or Hong Kong. Can you imagine one of those countries without an international airport, and still expect it to grow?

Second is demand. Right now we have demand for about 12 million annual passengers (MAP) out of Orange County. About four million of those have to drive to either LAX or Ontario. That demand is expected to more than double in the next 20 years. Without an airport, that means demand is going to have to be furnished by LAX, and right now LAX cannot expand enough to handle the demand for the entire region.

The third is, this has been operated as an airport for 50 years by the U.S. Marines, and it's a $10-billion gift to the County of Orange. The runways are already in place; all you have to do now is build the facilities that go with it. This airport would not cost the taxpayers one dime. [Laughter] It's a gift from the Federal Government, and all the infrastructure around it will be built by bonding against future airport revenue.

Leonard Krasner

Editor, El Toro Website [www.eltoroairport.org]

We have no shortage of airports in the Southern California region. [Laughter] (It sounds like we're doing a comedy show this evening-both of us getting laughs.) We have seven airports within 50 miles of El Toro, and several of them-not LAX and not John Wayne-are looking for more business and are underutilized.

It just does not make sense to spend $3 billion to squeeze a second airport into Orange County. It will probably result in the closing of John Wayne Airport, which would be a loss of regional air capacity. And it's not the proper location-hemmed in by mountains and residential communities. It's not the place for a 21st Century airport, which ought to go out in remote areas such as Palmdale or the Southern California Logistics Airport.

Some Orange County folks will say Palmdale is too far away. But to much of the audience listening in Los Angeles, they're concerned about relieving the burden at LAX, and places like Palmdale and Southern California Logistics are well situated for taking the burden off LAX.

If anything, our problem in the region is one of ground transportation and access to the airports that already exist, not a shortage of airports.

Barbara Lichman

Executive Director, Airport Working Group

I'm very concerned about building an airport at El Toro because I believe it's the way of the future for Orange County. Why do I believe that? Because airports-despite the laughter that's sure to follow-bring jobs and income to a region, not just to the personal pockets of the people in that region, but to the government entities through income taxes and sales taxes that keep our schools going, keep our hospitals going, and keep our children able to live in Orange County.

A park is a lovely idea. Unfortunately, it can never be implemented, at least not under the initiative proposed here because of the very text of the initiative. Furthermore, it can never provide for the future of our children, and that's my principle concern.

Mayor Larry Agran

City of Irvine

A great metropolitan park that would be twice the size and every bit as beautiful as San Diego's Balboa Park would serve the interests of the public in a far better way than a second unneeded, unwanted, unaffordable and unsafe airport in Orange County. [Applause]

This great park that we propose is the kind of public amenity that generates income, but generates a quality of life that will make us proud that we lived here and that we worked in this endeavor, and it will be something wonderful for our children and grandchildren. We will provide at that great park in time all kinds of amenities, including science and history museums, a veterans' memorial and cemetery, picnic areas, a nature preserve, a great central library, performing arts facilities, soccer fields, baseball fields, and a great lake in the center that would be 100 acres and provide water sports of all kinds.

Will it be built in a day, or even a year or 10 years? No, this will unfold as other great parks have over a period of 10, 20, 30 and even 40 years. We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build a great metropolitan park in Orange County right here, right now.

In response to the economic argument, the economy is supposed to serve the people; the people are not supposed to serve the economy. [Applause] In the end, we have built a wonderful economy here in Orange County, and now is the time to capitalize on what is one of the most magnificent places in the world to live by having a great metropolitan park in the sixth largest county in the United States.

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Warren Olney

Mayor Agran, let me ask a question that pertains to the whole region. Obviously, a park in southern Orange County would be a wonderful thing for the people in southern Orange County. What about the argument we've heard earlier and that we hear elsewhere around the region that the airports are too crowded, that we need a new airport, that Orange County people-particularly in southern Orange County-use LAX and other airports but aren't thereby paying their fair share because they don't have an airport in their own vicinity?

Mayor Agran

First of all, we do have an airport. It's one of the larger and more beautiful airports in the country. It is underutilized as things stand now, and is slated to grow. Even the most vigorous proponents of El Toro airport acknowledge that John Wayne Airport has apparently prepared to sign off on an agreement that it should grow by 27% over the next 20 years even though the population of the County is only going to grow by 14%.

On top of that, when you look at the LA airport system, it's not just LAX. The question has to be raised: What about Palmdale, which has been built at great public expense and was built to be a 21st Century airport? And what about Ontario, where they have prepared to take an additional 10 MAP? It's underutilized and is part of the LA airport system.

We in Irvine intend to have on the ground within two years a remote airport terminal that would allow people to park their cars at the Irvine transportation center, get a ticket, get on a luxury bus and drive out to Ontario Airport at no burden to the people of Los Angeles whatsoever.

Let me say on other thing about the park. You described it as a south County park. If you look at the map of Orange County, the great park that we propose at El Toro is right smack dab in the geographic center of the County. So we're talking about something that is central to the future of the County as well as central geographically.

Warren Olney

When you said there's an underutilized airport, you meant John Wayne?

Mayor Agran

No, John Wayne has about 7.4 MAP now. It's capped at 8.4 MAP, and the latest proposal on the table is that over the next 20 years, it would grow to 9.8 MAP. Incidentally, all that growth could take place without introducing a single additional airplane into the system as the load factor there now is one of the lowest in the country because of the marketing and pricing systems.

The challenge is to use the assets that we have in the Southern California region more effectively and address the ground transportation problems. But building an additional international airport that would be landlocked in the center of roughly one million people is nuts.

Warren Olney

Barbara Lichman, your Airport Working Group began as an effort via residents to prevent the expansion of John Wayne Airport. Will you respond to what Mayor Agren just said?

Barbara Lichman

Absolutely. And I have to clarify: We had two goals when we founded the Airport Working Group. One was to control the expansion of John Wayne Airport, but never to close it. Frankly, it is a key in the functioning of Orange County, and a key in the functioning of the lives of most people in Newport Beach who travel a tremendous amount (Newport Beach being the most affected city). The second goal was to find an additional airport for O.C.-not an alternate, but an additional. Those goals were founded back 20 years ago, and we have accomplished virtually everything we set out to do.

Second, with response to Mayor Agran, I'm afraid I am going to have to revert to some legalisms here. Here's the problem: Larry doesn't run an airport. Larry runs a city, and to our knowledge, he runs it all right. But he doesn't run an airport. So when he makes pronouncements about how John Wayne Airport can run without a single additional aircraft, that comes from a position of less than perfect knowledge about how airports run. For instance, new regional jets that will take the routes between John Wayne and San Francisco will multiply over the years. Anyone who knows anything about the John Wayne Airport settlement agreement knows that there is a class of aircraft called "Class E" that is not controlled by that agreement and that includes regional jets. They're small, they serve the purpose, and they will proliferate because they are fairly quiet. So shoving the problem onto a runway 5,700-feet long, not 10,000-feet long, that has a departure procedure which most of us find armchair-clutching, that can never expand because the closest house is something like 300 feet off the end of a runway where at a normal airport that house would be in the middle of the runway, is the height of foolishness.

And to say that we have enough airports to meet demand? Ontario is constrained not by demand-not by our desires-but by the California Air Resources Board and the South Coast Air Quality Management District. Why is that? Because it's located out east in a basin where air pollution sits, and it is highly impacted. The AQMD has capped it at 12 MAP. Admittedly, it's at about 7 MAP now. That doesn't help us.

Let me just say that we have a severe air travel demand problem in this region. The existing airports are all surrounded by people just like Larry and his constituents. They're not thrilled with the idea of bearing more burden when others don't bear any. [Applause] So it becomes an issue of: Can the airport take it? And why should someone bear Irvine's burdens?

Lastly, to send a luxury bus out to Ontario on a regular basis will cause more air pollution than running jets out of El Toro.

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