Aint No Mountian Low Enough

The county's proposed El Toro International Airport is the answer to a question no one asked. At tremendous cost—in money and in environmental impact—the airport would allow more than 800 additional commercial airliners to fly in and out of the county every day, as though that's the one puzzle piece left to complete the image of a truly modern Orange County.

The airport, with a current estimated cost of $3 billion and rising, does nothing to answer the most important transportation question facing the county: how to deal with exploding commute times. Though Riverside and Orange counties are growing, and highway traffic between them is almost a constant gridlock, the county continues to sink billions into an airport plan that would likely make things much worse.

“We're running out of time and options,” said Bill Vardoulis, head of Irvine-based BV Engineering. “We're expecting peak traffic to be four hours each way from Orange County to Riverside. This is the biggest transportation problem we've ever seen.”

His proposed solution is radical: dig three 40-foot-diameter tunnels beneath the Santa Ana Mountains and the Cleveland National Forest. If built, the tunnels could cut commutes from Irvine to Riverside to just 15 minutes. That brings March Air Force Base—now a commercial airport starving for flights—a lot closer. Such proximity would go a long way toward meeting the county's future air-traffic demands.

Promotional material supplied by Vardoulis shows the tunnels would be 12 miles long. He says stairways would link the tunnels every 1,000 feet. Vardoulis isn't yet sure whether to allow cars and trucks to drive through the tunnels or to pull them along on a conveyor, similar to —but much faster than—those that pull cars through a car wash. Two of the tunnels would carry cars as well as high-voltage transmission cables, fiber optics and oil. The third and lower tunnel would carry trucks, possibly rail lines and water from Lake Matthews.

It's a colorful idea from a colorful guy. An engineer by training, Vardoulis was one of the earliest mayors of Irvine. During that tenure, he proposed burning waste to produce energy and argued that the city ought to purchase the Irvine Co. Both ideas died quickly.

Vardoulis says his inspiration for the tunnels was a Metropolitan Water District plan to dig an 18-mile-long, 15-foot-diameter water pipe along roughly the same alignment. That plan was abandoned for lack of public money. Vardoulis says he wants to fund the tunnels privately. “If you did it right and combined uses, this thing could probably pencil out privately,” said Vardoulis, who estimates construction costs at $2 billion. “I've got a letter from the Irvine Co. saying I'm woefully underestimating the cost, and that may be so, but keep in mind, I'm not talking about using taxpayer dollars.” Vardoulis estimates he can build the tunnels in just two to three years. By comparison, the county's airport plans are nearly 5 years old and face at least a generation of court battles.

The environmental impacts are pretty obvious, most notably on the canyon residents who live near the proposed Orange County opening at Silverado Canyon. Of course, canyon residents all over South County will take it in the shorts if the county clears commercial operations at El Toro.

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