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JOHN WAYNE AIRPORT : Airports of the Future

September 04, 1990|JEFFREY A. PERLMAN | TIMES URBAN AFFAIRS WRITER

Sad to say, but the Thomas F. Riley Terminal will be obsolete the day it opens.

That's because Orange County's air travel demand, which generates upward of 11 million passengers a year, already outstrips what the new terminal can satisfy--a maximum of 8.4 million passengers a year, set by a 1985 court settlement.

By the year 2010, Orange County's air travel demand is expected to exceed 22 million passengers a year.

Where will all those passengers go?

Fasten your seat belts.

Imagine streaking across the sandy desert aboard a sleek train floating on a cushion of electromagnetism, at speeds exceeding 200 m.p.h. The only sound is the wind.

Now imagine that this "maglev" train stops at a combination super airport-spaceport at George Air Force Base, 75 miles from Anaheim in San Bernardino County. Upon arriving, you transfer to a hypersonic space plane that rockets you to far-flung cities linked by the global economy.

Transportation planners, as well as some politicians and developers, have pinned their hopes--and in some cases their wallets--on turning this dream into reality. The city of Adelanto, where George Air Force Base is located, wants it to happen, although the town's desert neighbors, many of whom fled urban ills, aren't so sure.

The California-Nevada Super Speed Ground Transportation Commission has awarded a franchise to San Francisco-based Bechtel International Inc. to build a maglev (short for "magnetic levitation") line between Las Vegas and Anaheim, with a potential stop at George Air Force Base, which is being closed by the military.

But there are many obstacles. The air base, for example, is on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Super Fund list of most-contaminated sites. Moreover, the high-speed train may prove to be unfeasible without taxpayer subsidies.

"I think you need to look at George Air Force Base very carefully, but the kind of train service that people are proposing . . . doesn't work," said John Wayne Airport Manager George Rebella. The proposed maglev train could not possibly carry enough passengers to George Air Force Base, and even if it could, that would mean putting a 15-million-passenger-a-year train station in the middle of Anaheim, he said.

"It may make more sense to fly smaller planes from here (John Wayne) to George Air Force Base and have longer hauls out of George," Rebella said.

Building a new airport at George Air Force Base would fit into what federal government experts see as a trend toward remote, regional mega-hubs or "wayports" connected by high-speed trains. This way, airports such as John Wayne would serve as feeders for the mega-hubs, with people transferring at George Air Force Base to bigger planes for transcontinental and international travel.

High-speed trains also are expected to compete with and replace some air service, reducing what's been called "winglock," as such trains do now in France.

Still, Orange County's unmet demand for air travel "points up the need to find a new location for an additional airport in a timely fashion, enabling it to be operative by at least 2010, which is only 20 years away," said Leland Oliver, president of the Orange County Chamber of Commerce.

Noting that freeway congestion has driven some companies out of Orange County, Oliver predicted that the lack of air travel capacity will produce the same result.

"There should have been a decision made 20 years ago when the county's build-out was not as extensive as it is today," Oliver added. "But the county leadership couldn't make up its mind then and has yet to make up its mind."

Indeed, half a dozen commissioned reports in the past 20 years have suggested that new airports could be established in locations ranging from the coastal waters off Newport Bay to the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, Camp Pendleton in San Diego County and the Chino Hills.

Last April, the Airport Site Coalition, a group hired by the Board of Supervisors to find another airport site, recommended two locations out of four finalists: Cristianitos Canyon near San Clemente and south Camp Pendleton.

In addition, the coalition recommended further study of George Air Force Base.

But contrary to the coalition's wishes, county supervisors decided only to pursue George Air Force Base, repeating a view contained in previous resolutions adopted by the board in the early 1980s that there is no feasible location within Orange County's own borders for a new airport.

Powerful landowners objected to giving up their property for a new airport. Construction and land purchases would cost well over $3 billion. Residents of Dana Point, San Clemente and San Juan Capistrano were up in arms too, fearful of airport-induced congestion, pollution and air safety concerns, all of which coalition members and airport proponents believe are unfounded.

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