Southland Airport Planners Face Frustrating Paradox

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Living in the shadow of the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, Irvine resident Susan Johnston has signed petitions, spoken out at public hearings and contributed money in an effort to block plans to convert the base into a commercial airport.

Meanwhile, 50 miles away in the flatlands south of Moreno Valley, community leaders such as Art Pick would like nothing more than a major airport and are racing to convert March Air Force Base into an air cargo facility.

Herein lies the paradox of airport planning in Southern California. Demand for passenger and air cargo service is expected to double over the next 15 years. Yet there is little consensus over where to place new airports.

Airline experts say that the industry favors a massive expansion of Los Angeles International Airport and development of an international airport at El Toro. The sites are attractive because they are near housing and job centers.

But residents who live near LAX and El Toro are fighting the plans and suggest instead that airlines go to more welcoming communities near March and near Palmdale Airport, in the Antelope Valley 60 miles north of LAX. Palmdale and March sit on the fringes of the region and lack the population and job base of El Toro and LAX.

"It's a Catch-22," said Neil Bennett, western region director of the Air Transport Assn., which represents nearly all commercial airlines. "In order to have demand, you have to have population density. And when you have population density you have conflict."

Without the support of airlines, it is doubtful that either March or Palmdale can blossom into a true regional airport. But boosters believe that the industry will take a second look if LAX or El Toro opponents block one or both of the expansions.

The stakes are high because of the increasingly important role that air trade plays in Southern California's economy. Proponents of the LAX and El Toro projects say the economy will suffer if the region does not find ways to accommodate more flights.

LAX alone pumps $44 billion a year into the region's economy and about 400,000 jobs are tied to its operations, according to airport officials. By 2015, they say, an expanded airport could generate $64 billion in economic activity and 472,000 jobs.

A study by the Southern California Assn. of Governments found that by 2020, the region's 14 biggest airports could serve as many as 157.4 million passengers annually if El Toro is built and LAX is expanded.

If El Toro is scrapped, projected regional capacity would drop by 4%. If both the LAX and El Toro projects are killed, projected capacity would drop by 16%, according to the association.

The regional planning organization in 1993 found that, of the five military bases being closed in Southern California, including March, El Toro was the best site for a new airport.

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Expansion opponents don't dispute the economic need for more airport facilities but say the solution lies on the outskirts of the region.

"I find it so odd that we are doing battle over this issue when there are other areas in the region that would love an airport," said Lake Forest Councilman Richard Dixon. "There's no reason an area that doesn't want an airport should have to have one."

Dixon and other El Toro expansion opponents say the growth projections fail to consider the high costs of environmental mitigations, such as retrofitting thousands of homes and business with noise-reducing insolation and windows.

LAX foes make the same argument, adding that the government association has not taken into account the possibility that vocal opposition could delay the project or require it to be trimmed.

The debate has created some unexpected alliances. Rather than fighting among themselves over which expansion should go forward, LAX and El Toro foes are largely unified in the position that neither project is acceptable.

"What they are proposing is an accident waiting to happen," said El Segundo resident Liz Garnholz, who added that the noise from passing LAX jets is so loud that she had noise-mitigating windows installed in her home.

Besides safety concerns, residents who live near LAX and El Toro fear that the projects would bring noise, pollution and traffic gridlock and would reduce property values. "It would ruin our quality of life," said Johnston, who lives under the proposed El Toro flight path.

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The military is scheduled to pull out of El Toro next year, and the county is proposing that the base be converted into an international airport. LAX is already one of the nation's largest airports, but the city wants to add another runway, build a new terminal and make other additions.

March and Palmdale would be better alternatives, backers say, if a high-speed rail system were built linking those areas to Los Angeles and Orange County population centers.

The government association has studied the idea of a rail system connecting local airports but places the price at $6 billion.

Los Angeles City Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, who is pushing for the expansion of Palmdale Airport, said the site might be on the fringes of suburbia today, but the surrounding area should grow rapidly in the coming decades.

"Palmdale's distance is a relative thing," she said. "Palmdale is near the growth areas in the San Fernando Valley and north [Los Angeles] County. . . . It all comes down to how long it takes to get there."

El Segundo Mayor Jane Friedkin agreed, adding that other airports built outside cities have eventually thrived as development spreads around them. "Dulles was way the heck out there when it was built," she said, referring to the airport outside of Washington, D.C. "The area grew around it."

Airline consultants and business leaders remain highly skeptical about March and Palmdale, especially because El Toro seems to offer enough open space to comfortably build an international airport surrounded by jobs and housing.

"You need to find something that, while on the fringes of development, it still services the area well," said Margery al-Chalebi, president of a transportation and economic development planning consulting firm in Chicago.

"It has to be on that very fine line between convenience and non-intrusion," she added. "El Toro is such a perfect match in fitting all of [those] criteria."

Bennett, with the Air Transport Assn., is more blunt.

"We have looked and looked at Palmdale, and it's not very viable," he said. "We haven't been thinking about March very much."

The sobering forecasts haven't dampened the spirits of March boosters, however.

The airport, just off Interstate 215 between Riverside and Perris, has not signed on any air carriers yet.

But officials are confident that their airport will take off within the next 20 years. Right now, they are focusing exclusively on bringing cargo flights to the base.

"We can be patient," said airport spokesman Steve Albright.

In addition to dealing with a possible airport at El Toro, March must compete against nearby Ontario International Airport, which is scheduled to complete a $250-million expansion in September.

Since 1975, the airport has grown from 1.2 million passengers a year to 6.4 million. After the expansion, it will be able to handle 15.9 million passengers.

Although March is fighting for flights, it appears to be at peace with surrounding residents.

"I have heard nobody complain or call me and express any concerns about the planes flying overhead," said Moreno Valley Mayor Bill Batey. "Residents are looking forward to having a cargo port operating out of March."

Added Pick, president of the Greater Riverside Chambers of Commerce: "There was very little disagreement with the way it was constructed. . . . Everybody gets along."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Airport Futures

Air traffic in Southern California has increased dramatically over the last 40 years and is expected to do the same during the next 20. Here is a breakdown of the number of passengers handled annually by the region's airports, in millions:

Year: Passengers

1960: 7.4

1970: 24.2

1980: 40.0

1992: 64.0

1995: 74.0

1997: 77.3

2020: 157.4*

* Projection

Increased service at Southern California airports to meet passenger demand that could more than double by the year 2020 will vary, based on proposed expansions at each airport. How the region's airport passenger loads could change, in millions, and a look at the plans for how three local facilities compare with the proposed El Toro airport:

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Airport 1995 2020 Burbank 4.9 9.2 Imperial County 0 0.1 John Wayne 7.2 7.0 Long Beach 0.4 2.8 Los Angeles 53.9 94.2 Ontario 6.4 15.9 Oxnard 0.1 0.2 Palmdale 0 0.1 Palm Springs 1.0 1.7 El Toro 0 22.2 George AFB 0.1 0.1 March AFB 0 0.9 Norton AFB 0 1.8 Point Mugu 0 1.8 Total 74.0 158.0

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How They'll Change

A look at the plans for how three local facilities compare with the proposed El Toro airport:

Los Angeles International Airport

Acres: 3,500

Expansion plans: Add one runway, create new terminal for commuters and reconfigure current design

Cost: $8 billion to $12 billion

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Ontario International Airport

Acres: 1,463

Expansion plans: Add 26 gates and 4,900 new parking spaces by September 1998

Cost: $250 million

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John Wayne Airport

Acres: 500

Expansion plans: Finish by spring 1999 construction of 1,962 additional parking spaces and central transportation area to serve all ground transportation

Cost: $27 million for parking structure only

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El Toro Marine Corps Air Station

Acres: 4,700

Expansion plans: Conversion to commercial airport

Cost: Estimated $1.6 billion

Sources: Southern California Assn. of Governments, individual airport authorities

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