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June 6-L.A. Asks for Airport at El Toro,LA
L.A. Asks for Airport at El
A secret memo urges the U.S. to let the city run a commercial
operation at the former base. Strong Orange County opposition is
By Jennifer Oldham and Jean pasco
Times Staff Writers
June 6, 2003
The city of Los Angeles has secretly asked the federal government to
allow it to run a commercial airport at Orange County's former El
Toro Marine air base — a move almost certain to spark intense
Even without the specter of Los Angeles' becoming involved,
proposals to open an airport at El Toro have polarized politics in
County, where the ideas have been under debate since 1994.
A year ago, many Orange County voters believed that they had ended
the debate by approving a ballot measure calling for the El Toro
property to be rezoned as parkland. The park initiative was
supported by ratios of more than 3 to 1 in southern Orange County
the old base.
But the Southland's urgent need for more airport space should
override the wishes of Orange County residents to devote the
parkland and other uses, according to the Los Angeles Airport
Commission president, Ted Stein, and Deputy Mayor Troy Edwards.
"It would simply be a modern tragedy if El Toro — an invaluable
aviation asset in Southern California — is converted to parkland,
to a commercial airport that could eventually carry nearly 30
million passengers annually," the two said in a memo to federal
"This exceptional federal property should be dedicated to benefit
the citizens of the entire nation."
In the 37-page memo to the U.S. Department of Transportation, the
Los Angeles officials argued forcefully that federal intervention is
necessary to help solve Southern California's air capacity crunch.
Their proposal is that the Transportation Department take over the
property, which closed as a military base in July 1999, and lease it
to Los Angeles, which would operate the airport.
The memo, dated April 9, was obtained by The Times.
The proposal still faces formidable obstacles. It would need
approval from the Transportation Department and possibly Congress.
Asked for comment, department officials said only that there "is no
proposal on El Toro" before the agency.
A spokesman for Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn said city officials
had presented the plan to officials in Washington and hope to
discuss the proposal with
federal lawmakers in coming weeks.
Such a deal, which the mayor acknowledges is a "long shot," would
require finessing of Orange County officials. Many of them support
an airport plan, but others
are heatedly opposed. Hahn has yet to sit down and discuss the
proposal in detail with Orange County lawmakers.
"We don't want to tell Orange County what they can and can't do,"
Hahn said in an interview Thursday. "This only works with support in
Orange County, and there
has been significant support there over the years for an airport."
Ignoring the billions invested over the years in El Toro's airfield
in favor of homes, offices and parkland would be tragic, given the
region's need for additional
airport capacity, said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach), a
longtime airport supporter.
He said he supports Los Angeles' proposal, though he believes that
any final airport plan should be presented to Orange County voters.
"The last vote was not the last word on El Toro," he said. "It's
becoming evident that the Great Park was really a great fraud and
what voters thought they were
getting won't get built. We owe it to the future of Orange County,
the future of the region and the taxpayers of the United States not
to throw away this asset."
If the Transportation Department agreed to take over El Toro and
lease it to the city's airport agency, Los Angeles officials said,
they could have a commercial
airport up and running within six years.
The airport could serve 28.8 million passengers and handle 2 million
tons of cargo a year within 15 years, the memo suggests, making it
second in size in Southern
California only to LAX. That would put it on par with San Francisco
International Airport, which served 31 million passengers last year.
Los Angeles operates four airports: LAX, Van Nuys and Palmdale in
Los Angeles County and Ontario International Airport in San
The move by Los Angeles comes just as the Navy is completing plans
to auction 3,700 acres of the El Toro property later this year, with
proceeds estimated at
about $800 million.
Without additional airport capacity, Southern California will face
an air transportation crisis in the next 20 years, regional planners
say. Air traffic in the region is
expected to double to 167 million passengers by 2025, putting
pressure on LAX, which already operates at 40% more than capacity.
In addition, Hahn promised to cap LAX traffic at 78 million
passengers a year to build political capital for a $9.6-billion
Most of the region's other airports face limits on their ability to
expand. Long Beach and John Wayne have noise restrictions that cap
their growth. Burbank
residents have fought expansion of the airport there for years.
Ontario Airport, which is also operated by Los Angeles, is designed
to serve as many as 10 million passengers a year before it requires
expansion. San Diego
International Airport, also known as Lindbergh Field, is straining
under the weight of too many passengers too.
Without El Toro, there's nowhere for the expected additional
millions of passengers to go, Los Angeles officials said.
"Long Beach just got approval to cap their flights," Hahn said.
"John Wayne has reached its limits. Lindbergh has reached its
limits. No airports to the south can
accommodate the great population growth down there."
Los Angeles officials have argued that Orange County must take its
"fair share" of air travelers, either through developing an airport
at El Toro or expanding John
"LAX clearly has taken the brunt of the region's aviation demand,"
Deputy Mayor Edwards said in an interview Thursday. "We have a
master plan for LAX that
will provide for 78 million annual passengers, and Ontario could
serve more. But even with all those efforts we know that 50 million
annual passengers will be
unprovided for by 2025."
Opponents of an El Toro airport have warned for a year of possible
attempts by state lawmakers to bypass local control and build an
An anti-airport Web site last week alleged that Orange County
Supervisor Chuck Smith, who favors an El Toro airport and who is in
line to head the Southern
California Assn. of Governments next year, would use the group to
create a regional airport authority similar to a state-created
agency in San Diego.
"It is not over until it is over," wrote Web site editor Len Kranser.
In their memo, Stein and Edwards acknowledge that Orange County
residents would probably sue the city of Los Angeles if the city
acquired control of the former
If the U.S. Transportation Department agreed to the city's proposal,
it would be a departure from the federal government's practice,
which has been to allow local
entities to decide whether to build or expand airports. Likewise,
base closure law defers decisions about mothballed facilities to
local reuse authorities.
Supporters of Los Angeles' proposal hope to persuade Transportation
Secretary Norman Y. Mineta to make a formal request for the base.
Mineta has pushed in
recent years for additional airport space, saying the nation's air
transportation system is approaching its limits.
The memo also argues that several members of Congress — including
Rep. John Mica (R-Florida), who heads the House aviation
subcommittee — are on the
record in support of converting El Toro into a commercial airport.
The success of an El Toro takeover would also rest in part on the
willingness of the Navy to give
up its plans for the base, which carry a high price tag. The Navy
hopes to receive at least $800 million from selling the property,
which would then be developed
under plans approved by the city of Irvine. Proceeds from the sale
would go to the Navy, and would have to be used to clean up the
base's contaminated soil and
Cleanup issues could also cause wrinkles in what officials hope will
be a smooth sale. Federal and state environmental regulators haven't
approved the Navy's
plans to sell base property. Included in areas that still haven't
been cleared for sale are about 900 acres of runways that could
cover contaminated soil.
The Los Angeles memo doesn't state a price for the property, but
Edwards said Thursday that the city's offer is better for taxpayers,
who would otherwise have to
foot the bill for cleanup costs, a figure placed at $300 million in
the city's memo and $70 million by the Navy.
"We know the figures that have been in the paper for El Toro in the
past for the sale of it," Edwards said. "We could easily outdo those
in terms of a 99-year
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