Hitting the Wall

Photo courtesy www.tomwall.orgFor years, retired Marine Lieutenant Colonel Tom Wall has been the county's official voice—and face—of the proposed El Toro International Airport. This makes perfect sense: Who better to shill for a mothballed Marine base than a mothballed Marine?

His classic buzz cut makes him look tough from across the room, but up close, he's as short as Tom Cruise. And he likes to talk. Wall's promotional materials (available on his website, www.tomwall.org) couch his public-speaking skills in jarhead terms. “Put Tom's experience, humor, and 'take no prisoners' style to work for your organization,” Wall says of himself. His buddy Lieutenant Colonel Bob Lottie agrees, saying Wall's “'take charge' attitude and riveting anecdotal style will capture your attention.”

Taking charge while taking no prisoners is often most riveting to civilians. Peter Brennan, who covered El Toro for The Orange County Business Journal from 1997 to 1999, has said that Wall's “message is clear, and the delivery is right between the eyes. I want him on my side when a debate begins.” Brennan's observation also appears on Wall's website.

Wall says one of his skills is “turn[ing] dry, mundane or boring events into an experience you will remember forever.” And when it comes to Wall's El Toro work, we do indeed remember, but not in a good way.

Ostensibly, Wall's job at each of the county's El Toro gatherings is to describe the proposed airport using “just the facts.” He's already made appearances at the Aug. 9 Anaheim forum and the Aug. 15 Lake Forest gathering, and he will speak again during the Aug. 30 meeting in Yorba Linda and at the rest of the county's meetings through September.

His talent—far from alerting residents to the proposed airport's true costs and shortcomings—is to say whatever is necessary to make the airport look like a winner. Here are just a few examples from Wall's performance at the past two El Toro forums:

The proposed airport “is perfectly safe. . . . We have not found a single indication as to why this airport would be unsafe.”This is how Wall—a former Marine Corps helicopter pilot—pays for himself. No airport is “perfectly safe,” and an airport surrounded by hills is less so. Two pilots' unions, a former Federal Aviation Administration associate administrator and a former Department of Transportation inspector general have said repeatedly that El Toro's winds, steep runway gradients and surrounding hills pose unnecessary risks to airliners—especially any aircraft that experiences engine trouble during departure. The air travel demand requiring a new airport “isn't based on residents' increased flight habits . . . but on increased tourism.”This one's intriguing because it contradicts the centerpiece of pro-airport propaganda throughout the years—that South County commercial and residential growth is driving the need for a new airport. But Wall's matter-of-fact Aug. 15 statement also flies in the face of known facts, namely that Disneyland—one of the largest tourist destinations in the world—announced two years ago that it saw no need for an airport at El Toro. Jet fuel will get to El Toro from “two fuel pipelines” already in place.That's funny because Page 6-34 of the county Airport System Master Plan “assumes [fuel] facilities configuration and activity reflecting tanker truck delivery.” Translation: jet fuel will arrive in trucks, not through pipes. And it's going to be a lot of trucks—244 of them per day rolling down the 5 freeway to and from the airport, all day and all night. As for the pipelines Wall mentioned, one is old and too thin to handle commercial airport demand and the other is already filled with fuel for distribution to San Diego County. The San Joaquin Hills toll road “has eliminated traffic problems in Laguna Beach except for a very short period on a summer day.”Wall's point was that the proposed airport is just like the infamous toll road: people criticized it then, but now it solves our traffic woes. But unless he describes “a very short period” as 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. on weekdays and 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. on weekends, Wall's out of his mind. The toll road hasn't affected Laguna Beach traffic in any appreciable way, mostly because no one uses the toll road—which is pretty much what critics predicted. Traffic on the road hasn't even met the Transportation Corridor Agencies' minimum-use projections. “The real decision makers here are [sic] the Board of Supervisors.”

Unquestionably the scariest thing Wall has ever said on the airport. It's also dead-on: here in Orange County, public opinion means nothing, except when it supports the board majority.

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