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O.C. Officials Go to Washington to Push for Airport

Aviation: Contingent, including two supervisors, reports positive feedback from federal agencies. El Toro foes say trip is a waste.

January 25, 2002|SEAN GILL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON -- Orange County officials used a visit to the nation's capital Thursday to push ahead with plans to build an El Toro airport, even as polls indicate that a majority of county voters have soured on the project.

Supervisors Jim Silva and Chuck Smith, along with El Toro planning director Gary Simon and architect Mark Molen, said they intend to continue with airport planning even as voters go to the polls in March to once again decide the fate of the closed Marine base.

During a round-table discussion, they emphasized that an international airport at El Toro would be the first built with post-Sept. 11 security requirements in mind.

Simon said the group had met with officials from several key agencies, including the Federal Aviation Administration, and had received positive feedback.

"We're excited and encouraged that our federal colleagues are on schedule," he said, referring to the expected completion of an environmental review in February by the Navy and the FAA. He said officials encouraged them to begin seeking funding for the airport.

"The airport opposition's claim that federal funding is not available is ridiculous," Smith said.

Opposition groups argue that there is no guarantee that federal funding would be granted to convert the base to a commercial airport. An FAA report released last year said the airport, as designed, would conflict with flights arriving at John Wayne and Long Beach airports, and would add delays to Southern California's already overcrowded airspace.

Opponents also say an airport at the base would hurt the quality of life in South County.

Anti-airport spokeswoman Meg Waters called it a waste of money to send a contingent to Washington to promote an airport voters will kill in March.

"Talking about the terminal design at El Toro is about as useful as rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic," said Waters, who represents the El Toro Reuse Planning Authority, a coalition of anti-airport South County cities.

Simon said county officials travel to Washington every two months to meet with administration officials and lawmakers.

The group will continue working to increase the airport plan's visibility at the federal level despite the March 5 vote on Measure W, the initiative that seeks to replace airport zoning at the base with that of an urban park and other development, Simon said.

Also, planners were phasing out the name El Toro in favor of Orange County International Airport, or OCX, its potential airport code, he said.

"We want to stop thinking about it as the development of a former military base and start thinking about it as the development of OCX," he said.

Supervisors Silva and Smith said they still strongly favor an airport at El Toro. But Silva repeated earlier statements that he would probably stop pushing for the airport if Measure W passed. The county's airport plan is supported by a 3-2 margin on the board, with Chairwoman Cynthia P. Coad joining Smith and Silva in support. Supervisors Todd Spitzer and Tom Wilson oppose the airport.

"El Toro is the ideal location for an ideal airport," Silva said. "The FAA has determined that OCX is a safe airport to fly in and out of.

"It would take billions of dollars to create what we already have in Orange County," he said, referring to the existing runways at the base and its large buffer zone.

Orange County's demand for air travel will grow and demand in general should fully recover from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 18 to 24 months, the officials said. John Wayne Airport, they said, is operating at 95% of its pre-Sept. 11 levels. "The demand is there," Smith said. "We as elected officials have got to meet that demand some way."

Airport foes question the county's demand estimates, arguing that other airports in the region can accommodate future passenger loads.

In its current design, the El Toro airport terminal would have three levels: one for departures, a second for ticketing and security, and another for arrivals. Curbside passenger drop-off and baggage check-in areas would be more than 300 feet from the main terminal and would be connected to the terminal by moving walkways.

"Pulling the curbside away from the terminal is something we would have never looked at pre-Sept. 11," said Molen, vice president of architectural design for URS Corp. "It would be a very different experience from most airports."

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Times staff writer Jean O. Pasco contributed to this report.

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