Rep. Norman Y. Mineta, (D-San Jose), chairman of the House Public Works Committee, has urged Secretary of Transportation Federico Pena to pursue joint civilian-military use of the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station.
Mineta's Feb. 26 letter, written two weeks before the Pentagon's base closure list was officially announced with El Toro on it, was in response to a request from local airport booster Joseph E. Irvine, who heads the business-oriented Committee for El Toro Airport Tomorrow, which seeks conversion of the air base into a civilian airfield.
Although joint use of El Toro has been discussed for years, the Pentagon and the Board of Supervisors have strongly opposed such activity, citing concerns both about safety and jet noise.
Irvine's group has received financial support in the past from Federal Express, a major air cargo carrier that has lobbied hard in Washington for years in a bid to gain access to El Toro's runways. Air cargo flights are banned at John Wayne Airport to maximize use of the airport's limited capacity for passenger service.
"In recent years, the Department of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration have paid little more than lip service to expanding the civil use of military airfields," Mineta wrote to Pena. "I believe much more should be done in this area. The benefits to the capacity of our nation's transportation system are obvious."
Mineta's letter asks Pena to respond in writing to the idea of joint use.
Irvine, Mineta and Pena, who is scheduled to visit Orange County on Thursday, could not be reached for comment. The Board of Supervisors still hasn't give up on keeping the base open, but the county's congressional delegation is not opposing closure.
A source in Mineta's office said the congressman was not necessarily advocating joint use of the 50-year-old Marine base immediately but that he believes the communities and competing interests should try to "work it out."
While Newport Beach favors joint use of El Toro and eventual conversion of the base into a commercial airport, Irvine and other cities near the base strongly oppose such a move, fearing increased jet noise and ground traffic. Meanwhile, some officials believe that the land can best be used for new jails, low-income housing and a variety of other types of development, including a multipurpose transportation facility.
Groups opposing commercial airline use of El Toro say the joint-use effort is part of Newport Beach's strategy to get some civilian use of the runways now, in order to make it harder to close the runways in the future.
Through his committee chairmanship, Mineta is in a key position to influence the base closure issue when it comes before Congress later this year.
A subcommittee Mineta oversees handles all aviation matters.