Disneyland Stops Here

Was the county ever serious about a two-airport system?

For 100 weeks, this column has been a cannon firing mercilessly at the county's international airport plans for the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station. In that time, readers-inspired by the drama, infatuated with the slow-moving target-have said, "Sure, you can do this for 10 weeks (or 43 or 76 or 84), but how long can you keep it up?" The answer: for as long as there is official stupidity.

And as if to provide evidence that there is an inexhaustible supply (and not just of stupidity, but also arrogance, deceit and willingness to spend the public's money), the Board of Supervisors voted on March 30 to scrap its El Toro "people-mover."

The people-mover was supposed to be a 7-mile railroad linking El Toro International and John Wayne airports, whizzing air travelers between the two airports at a tremendous cost ($500 million to the taxpayers in additon to the gut-punching $110-per-passenger ticket price for the 14-mile roundtrip).

The project's cost was always exorbitant (it was introduced at an outrageous $300 million and then, like all things related to the airport, ballooned to nearly twice that before the March 30 vote). But its purpose was always unclear-unless, that is, you know how county officials inside the Hall of Administration think. From their perspective, the people-mover served two ends: to capture the public's imagination with a Disneyesque piece of useless technology and continue the pretense that once El Toro International opens, the county will continue to run John Wayne Airport.

"You can't put your arms around this thing," said airport commissioner L. David Markley of the rise and fall of the county's if-not-this-then-this planning style. The only member of the county's El Toro Citizen's Advisory Commission who opposes the airport, Markley has seen one expensively studied plan after another put before the focus group of public opinion, only to see each trashed in favor of something more saleable. Killing the people-mover, he said, is only the latest -"part of an evolution," he called it.

That evolution is headed toward a planning certainty, Markley said. "Ultimately, county officials will admit they have to close John Wayne Airport and re-orient El Toro's runways," he said. "But then the airport won't cost $1.6 billion-it will end up costing $5 billion or $6 billion."

But closing John Wayne Airport means shutting down a perfectly acceptable, expensive and modern airport. And tearing up the Marine base's old runways -however inevitable-gives the lie to the county's argument that El Toro is a turnkey operation. The cost of both initiatives would be in the billions. Since no one would buy into such a massively destructive and costly proposal, the logical answer is to say otherwise-that the county could simply "reuse" El Toro as a commercial airport and keep John Wayne fully operational. The Marines will bug out on July 2, and the next day at 6 a.m., skycaps will show up ready to tag your bags for the next SAS flight to Stockholm.

For two years, county planners have handed the supervisors a steady stream of airport plans to suit the latest transient political goal. The plans have been almost too numerous to recall-unless you have a bound copy of the first 44 installments of this column. Let's see: when 2nd District Supervisor Jim Silva campaigned for re-election against a well-funded candidate who backed South County's non-aviation reuse plan, county officials suddenly and inexplicably replaced their longtime plan to surround the airport with high-tech international-trade stuff with more popular "green" parks and agricultural land. It fooled no one.

When residents raised concerns about night flying, county officials floated news that they had asked the Federal Aviation Administration for a complete ban on night flights. The FAA always says no, but saying you're asking makes for great press.

And when airline pilots and former transportation officials complained about the safety of El Toro's runways, the same officials produced a glowing report saying El Toro was perfectly safe under all conditions. Never mind that the Air Line Pilots Association-the largest commercial pilots union in the country-rejected the report and has broken off all relations with the county; the county has its own study.

In this same style of sleight-of-hand public planning, the people-mover pulled into the station. Last year, the people-mover allowed then-4th District Supervisor William Steiner to pretend he was an honest broker: by linking the two airports, he could say everyone in the county would pay (in the coin of noise, pollution and traffic) their fair shares of airport costs. But Steiner is gone now, and his pet project is gone with him.

By getting rid of the people-mover, the supervisors approved "Plan B." That plan calls for El Toro and John Wayne to operate independently, with the "market" to decide how big John Wayne Airport should be. It also calls for a massive increase in air operations at El Toro.

Under Plan B, 277,700 commercial jet airliners will operate out of El Toro, compared with 183,500 in the previous plan. With a single vote, the supervisors added 90,000 additional commercial-airline flights to El Toro every year-roughly one flight every two minutes. Cargo-usage numbers alone are astonishing: 2 million tons of cargo per year will move in and out of El Toro-the same amount that passes through Memphis Airport, home to Federal Express and the largest air-cargo hub in the nation today.

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