July 1, 2004 - From the September, 2001 issue

Will El Toro Be Orange County's Airport? MIR Planning/Development Roundtable

The battle over what should be built on the former-El Toro Marine base has raged for years. In its wake lay the blood, sweat and careers of advocates and proponents stretching from elected and appointed representatives to environmental activists and economists. In light of the recent Orange County Board of Supervisors vote and with air transit becoming an even larger issue since Sept. 11, MIR revisted the issue of a commercial airport at El Toro and again asked how the constituent elements of the plan were evolving, how it would be funded and why it's vital to the Orange County economy. Gary Simon, Executive Director of the Orange County Local Redevelopment Agency and Orange County Planning Manager Bryan Speegle guide us through these issues and offer their reaction to their opponents' claims.


Gary Simon

El Toro's conversion to a commercial airport has obviously been a hotly contested item for Orange County for some time now. What is the Orange County Local Redevelopment Agency's position re: the conversion? And what is the potential for success?

Gary Simon

The Local Redevelopment Authority (LRA) is the federally designated agency responsible for the planning and implementation of the reuse of El Toro as an international airport.

Air passenger demand in this country and throughout Southern California is going to double over the next 20 years. Somewhere that unmet capacity needs to be met. And its obvious that that burden cannot be shouldered solely by LAX.

And what about John Wayne airport?

Gary Simon

John Wayne Airport (JWA) operates efficiently and safely. Unfortunately, JWA is highly constrained both by size, location and runway length. The airport has one 5,700 foot commercial runway on 500 acres.Due to that limited size, it can only accommodate aircraft on short-haul to medium-haul flights. The proposed Airport System Master Plan (ASMP) for Orange County will maximize John Wayne's usage as a short- and medium-haul airport and will add the component of a long-haul international airport at El Toro.

In a recent Which Way, LA? broadcast, excerpted in the July issue of MIR, Leonard Kranser, editor of the "anti" El Toro Airport website said, "We have 7 airports within 50 miles of El Toro. Several of them-not LAX and not John Wayne-are looking for more business and are under-utilized. It just does not make sense to spend $3 billion to squeeze the second airport into Orange County." How do either of you respond to that assertion?

Gary Simon

In order to truly understand the need for an airport at El Toro, it's important to also discuss why it's not viable to export Orange County's demand for passenger and air cargo capacity to other airports. First, LAX already serves 67.3 million passengers a year, making it the third busiest airport in the nation. Increasing the the size of LAX would severely impact local communities, which now bear the burden of living at the edge of a facility that handles 75 percent of the passengers, 78 percent of the air cargo, and 100 percent of the international passengers and air cargo in the five-county Southern California region. Ontario Airport is a beautiful facility but few airlines will operate from there because there is not enough demand. Long Beach Airport is limited to 41 flights per day. And, there are no plans to expand this facility because it is surrounded by homes and schools. Other airports, such as San Bernardino and March and Norton Air Force Bases have no passenger service at this time. And Palmdale is 50 miles north of Los Angeles and just 61 acres in size, making it too small and too far away to serve our local demand.

Bryan Speegle

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There are additional limitations on those airports. They are smaller airports that are completely surrounded with development. The exception would be LAX and additional capacity at that location will be capped at 79, 89 or 94 million annual passengers (MAP). That simply will not meet the region's forecasted demand.

There's a cap on Long Beach; There's a cap on Burbank; There's a restriction from the State Air Resources Board on Ontario; George Air Force Base and Palmdale are in the middle of the desert; And March Air Force Base is still an operating military base, it can't even meet Riverside's needs. Those are not realistic alternatives.

El Toro doesn't have residences, public schools or other public amenities within a close enough proximity to be affected by airport noise levels. So why should we be looking at airports that are 50 or 100 miles away, that take three hours to commute to? And why should we increase John Wayne's impact on its surrounding neighborhoods and lower their quality of life when we have $1 billion worth of infrastructure just waiting to be used at El Toro?

Bryan, I want to focus on the theme that you're raising. What's the population and employment of Orange County now, and what will it be in a decade? With LAX now carrying 95-percent of Orange County's air cargo, what kind of cargo capacity would El Toro expected to have?

Bryan Speegle

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The population of Orange County is between 2.7 and 2.8 million currently and is estimated to grow to 3.25 million by the year 2020. But more significantly, at least for aviation demand, is the forecasted increase in employment. We have about 1.35 million jobs in Orange County. That total is estimated to grow to almost 2.12 million by the year 2020. That's a 70-percent increase in jobs.

Taken together, those figures translate into a total passenger demand of somewhere between 12 and 13 million annual passengers. Currently we can only accommodate 8.4 million passengers at John Wayne. So 4 to 5 million passengers and their cargo are being exporting to other airports such as LAX.

And will that increase in economic gains be offset by increased taxes or surcharges in an attempt to fund the airport expansion?

Gary Simon

One of the great things about the County's plan is that it has no impact on the taxpayer. The taxpayers of Orange County will not pay for El Toro through increased property taxes, a surcharge or through personal income taxes. Airports in this country just aren't funded that way.

Airports in this country are primarily funded through a couple of mechanisms. The first is through airport revenue bonds, which have a 0% percent rate of failure. The second is through Airport Improvement Grants (AIP) from the federal government. And finally, there are passenger facility charges.

This project, as you describe it, seems to be positive not only for Orange County, but for the entire L.A. and Southern California region. Are you expecting the Los Angeles political leadership and the Regional Airport Authority to voice their unified support of your efforts?

Gary Simon

Both Los Angeles World Airports (LAWA) and the El Toro Local Redevelopment Authority (LRA) are committed to increasing regional capacity. LAWA has a master plan for LAX and will soon be developing a master plan for Ontario. I think both the City of Los Angeles and the County of Orange are united in trying to find a regional solution to the demand.

That, combined with the rebirth of the Southern California Regional Airport Authority (SCRAA), has led to enormous optimism on our part. Frankly, SCRAA may be one of the only bodies that truly understands the regional problem we have here in Southern California.

I feel that we are all focused on creating a regional framework of air transit and in that our agencies are pushing forward and leading by example.

Let's conclude with a quote from former Orange County CEO, Jan Mittermeier. In an interview with MIR last May, she said in reference to building or expanding the airport, "There's always a light at the end of the tunnel. It just depends on whether it's actually light or an oncoming train." From your point of view, which describes the political situation, a light or an oncoming train?

Gary Simon

I have no comment on any Jan Mittermeier quotes. We don't live in a vacuum. And we certainly understand the controversy surrounding this project. But we are very encouraged by the business community and the citizens stepping forward and lending their support to an airport at El Toro. It's truly not the doom and gloom that airport opponents portray.

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