Plan to Sell Airport Not Yet Ready to Fly : * Questions of Financing, Control Need to Be Explored

Orange County Board of Supervisors Chairman Roger R. Stanton has come up with an idea for finding a sizable pot of money to relieve some of the county's fiscal woes: sell John Wayne Airport to the Orange County Transportation Authority. While certain aspects of the idea are intriguing, a thorough evaluation of what would best serve the public interest is required before such a proposal should be allowed to take flight.

The sale of public airports actually is not that unusual these days because government agencies across the nation--even the world--are in desperate need of cash. Unlike many publicly owned agencies, many airports, including John Wayne, generate income. That makes them attractive to private enterprise. But from the perspective of the cities and government agencies that own them, airport revenue is tantalizingly out of reach because, under federal restriction, they must be used only for airport-related operations and improvements. Outright sale is a way for public agencies to extract at least a one-time windfall from their airports.

In Orange County's case, many good uses could be found for money from the sale of John Wayne, which Stanton estimates could be sold for $100 million and others say is worth much more. Proceeds might be used, for example, to build a desperately needed new jail, which voters so far have refused to authorize. Or the entire sum could be invested and interest used to pay for health, welfare or law enforcement programs over the course of many years. The latter is an especially welcome idea in a time when Orange County is being forced to slash programs in the wake of California's fiscal crisis.

Things are never as easy as they seem, however. Even if one were to agree for the moment that the airport should be sold, the next question would be, to whom? If obtaining a large amount of cash is the only purpose, then selling to a private firm makes the most sense. But how would that affect the delicate settlements that were reached at John Wayne over noise lawsuits filed by area residents?

Stanton believes that selling the airport to the Transportation Authority might be a better idea. He argues, for one thing, that bringing John Wayne under the OCTA banner would consolidate transportation activities in the county. Also, the Transportation Authority might be able to loosen up the restrictions on airport revenue in order to build, say, a monorail serving the airport.

But the OCTA doesn't have $100 million or more sitting around. It would have to get the money to buy the airport from somewhere, probably by floating bonds that would have to be paid back over time. The transportation agency could finance this debt from the airport's revenue, but that's money now being used for other things. What's more, the public would end up paying interest on a debt incurred for something it owns outright. Is that wise?

Obviously, there are many things to be thought out about Stanton's surprise proposal, which he didn't even share with his own colleagues on the board before announcing publicly. Because of Stanton's lone-ranger style and propensity for political strategizing, it's tempting simply to dismiss the airport proposal as yet another power play. It's not hard to see that putting the airport under the Transportation Authority would put the agency's chief executive officer Stan Oftelie, a Stanton ally, in a better position to call the county's transportation shots.

But at best, Stanton's proposal seems worth exploring--though it's a long ways from takeoff.

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