Will O.C. ‘People Mover’ Fly?


The “people mover” that is the central feature of the El Toro airport plan endorsed by county supervisors this week appears to face a host of serious obstacles, and several experts are questioning its feasibility.

Even if the first-in-the-nation rail system linking John Wayne Airport with a new international airport at the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station can be built, another huge hurdle would be the plan to put it in Irvine, the heart of anti-El Toro airport sentiment.

The most immediate questions were the $300-million price tag and the level of support that could be expected from the airlines and from the millions of passengers who would be asked not only to change planes but to change airports via the people mover.

Because El Toro would handle strictly national and international flights, and John Wayne would handle only short-haul flights, someone traveling from Tokyo to the Bay Area would fly into El Toro and take the people mover the seven miles to John Wayne for a flight to San Francisco.


“If you are going on a long trip, I am not sure whether you are going to carry all your luggage on a train to reach a connecting flight,” said J. Thomas Black, a fellow at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy in Massachusetts.

Others wondered whether such a system would be embraced in a culture that treasures convenience.

“Having passengers hop a cab or a shuttle [bus] is more logical and a lot less expensive,” said Chicago airport planner Margerie Al-Chalabi.

“It’s an interesting concept,” said Mike Boyd, a Colorado-based airport designer, “but they are going to have a lot of difficulty pulling it off.”


Indeed, other cities, including Chicago, Washington, Dallas and Milwaukee, have considered rail links between short-haul and international airports, but most have been rejected as too expensive or unworkable.

“Chicago is a transit-friendly place, and there isn’t interest in an airport-to-airport link,” Al-Chalabi said. “I don’t see exporting that concept to a place like Southern California.”

The plan works on the assumption that demand for air service throughout the region will be so great that people will be willing to use the Orange County system, even if they must shuttle from one airport to another.

But aviation planners and consultants across the country said the rail system might not attract enough travelers to justify its estimated $300-million price tag, which is roughly a quarter of the entire cost of building an airport at El Toro.


The people-mover idea is also problematic because two separate rail projects through Irvine already are in the works. The first would go through the high-rise office developments near John Wayne Airport. The city has set aside $120 million for that and is not likely to want that money used for an airport it opposes. The second light rail, long planned by the Orange County Transportation Authority, would run from Fullerton to Irvine.

“It seems like what the county wants to do conflicts with what our city is already doing,” Irvine City Manager Paul Brady said.

Another unresolved question is how to pay for the people mover. Federal grants might be available, and the county could impose a $3-per-flight charge on all tickets purchased at the two airports. The “passenger facilities charge” is commonly used by other airports to fund improvements, but John Wayne Airport hasn’t used the fee so far.

Orange County officials acknowledge the high costs and complexities, which will be examined in greater depth over the next year. But they fear the airport plan might not work unless passengers and luggage can be quickly and reliably routed between El Toro and John Wayne. Without a rail link, they say, airlines might abandon John Wayne and choose instead to only fly out of El Toro.


And the Board of Supervisors is determined to retain commercial service at both airports to limit the noise and traffic for residents around El Toro--and because more than $300 million has been spent upgrading John Wayne over the last 15 years.

More than two dozen airports, including Las Vegas, Atlanta, Tampa, Dallas and Newark, use people movers to transport passengers and luggage between terminals and parking structures. Some systems also provide service to nearby business districts.

Rail lines within airports will become increasingly common in the next century because they reduce auto traffic and can easily move large numbers of people through vast terminals, said Clifford Bragdon, vice president of the National Aviation and Transportation Center in Long Island, N.Y.

But whether that makes sense here isn’t clear.


“I could see you connecting the Orange County airports to LAX, but I’m not sure what just linking these two accomplishes,” said Boyd, the airport designer.

Another unknown is how the airlines will react to the county’s people-mover proposal. Airlines have long pushed for a single Orange County international airport at El Toro to avoid the extra expense and logistical challenges of dealing with two separate facilities.

“We are really not that thrilled about having upgrades at two airports,” said Neil Bennett, western regional director of the Air Transport Assn. “But we are just beginning to look at this.”

County supervisors on Tuesday voted to make the people-mover plan--known as Option C--its “preferred alternative” of the four airport proposals submitted by planners. Under Option C, El Toro would handle 25 million passengers by 2020, while John Wayne Airport would handle 9.5 million.


Option C, the most complex and potentially costly of the alternatives, is the only proposal that calls for a rail system between airports and is the only one that would require legislation mandating that commercial flights of less than 500 to 600 miles go to John Wayne and that those of more than 500 to 600 miles go to El Toro.

The plan would resemble in some ways the situation in Dallas, where Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport handles most of the air traffic, while Love Field takes some short-haul service.

Like El Toro, Dallas needed federal legislation to clearly define the roles of each airport.

Of the other proposals, Options A and B would keep both airports operating but without the rail line. Under Option D, John Wayne would cease commercial operations and El Toro would handle 33 million passengers per year. Option D won the least interest from supervisors but is likely to be favored by airlines, who prefer one big airport at El Toro rather than two facilities.


The county now will conduct a more in-depth study of all four proposals, with special attention focused on the feasibility of the people-mover system and the divided duties of John Wayne and El Toro outlined in Option C.

Ron Ahlfedt, the county’s lead airport consultant, said that officials will have a better idea about the people-mover system after it completes demand projections for each airport. They also will consider alternatives to an expensive high-speed rail line. One idea is to extend the proposed Fullerton-to-Irvine light rail and make it the connection between John Wayne and El Toro.

An even cheaper option might be building a roadway that would carry only shuttle buses between the airports. But Ahlfedt said the less expensive the connection, the more time it will take to travel between the airports. A high-speed rail could make the trip in 11 to 15 minutes.

For now, all options are open.


“When it comes to airport planning, Orange County has never been afraid to try something new,” said Courtney Wierchioch, who manages the county’s El Toro development plans.


Portal-to-Portal Plan

County supervisors have endorsed a plan that calls for an airport at El Toro to be linked with John Wayne Airport via a people-mover light-rail system. No route has been proposed, but it could be similar to a preliminary alignment for an Irvine-to-Fullerton line, part of which is shown in red below:


Fast Facts

* Length: 7 miles

* Cost: About $300 million

* Service: High-speed rail, or part of a larger light-rail line proposed between Irvine and Fullerton


* Time: Depends on what’s approved; high-speed system could take 11 to 15 minutes

* Possible financing: Federal grants, airport revenue, $3-per-ticket tax




* Will airlines use both airports?

* How will connecting flights be coordinated?

* Can money be found for the rail line?

* Will enough people use it?


* How will luggage be moved?

* Will Irvine permit the rail through its city?

Sources: County of Orange, OCTA, Times reports

Researched by SHELBY GRAD / Los Angeles Times


* SOUTH COUNTY OPPOSITION: Emotions ran high at a town-hall meeting in Lake Forest to review El Toro reuse plans. B1