Los Angeles floats plan to save El Toro Airport

 - August 4, 2008, 11:04 AM

Chances of the former El Toro Marine Corps Air Station in Orange County, Calif., becoming a vital part of the National Airspace System–seemingly killed by a referendum last year–have been revived by a city of Los Angeles proposal. The proposal would have the federal government retain the base and lease it to Los Angeles World Airports (LAWA), operator of Los Angeles International, Van Nuys, Palmdale and Ontario international airports.

The 27-page memo from L.A. Mayor James Hahn to Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta stated, “It would be a modern tragedy for El Toro to be lost as an invaluable aviation asset,” which “should be dedicated to benefit the citizens of the entire nation.” The airfield, with its five runways–the longest 10,000 feet–was closed in 1999 after 57 years of use. The Orange County plan for El Toro as a regional airport was derailed by a March 2002 ballot initiative that changed base land-use zoning to bar aviation activity.

Troy Edwards, a Los Angeles deputy mayor, called the proposal a roadmap of how the El Toro property might yet become part of Southern California’s transportation infrastructure. “What has to happen is that the federal government agrees to lease the facility to LAWA. They could do so and not be subject to local zoning because the land would remain under federal ownership.” The roadmap calls for the DOT to request the Navy to transfer the El Toro Airport to it, and for the Navy to agree to do so.

Edwards noted, “The DOT, congressional leadership and the Navy will all have a role.” The Navy still owns the base until sometime this fall after committing to convey title to the neighboring city of Irvine. “But the date is not set in stone,” Edwards said. As of early July, the DOT had made no formal public response to the Los Angeles proposal. Acting Navy Secretary Hansford Johnson was quoted June 17 by the Los Angeles Times as reaffirming the service’s intent to hand El Toro over to local jurisdiction.

Thus, it appears that a decision on the Los Angeles proposal may have to come from the White House. The plan may find itself at the mercy of election-year politics, with two GOP House members from districts near El Toro on opposite sides. The county is a traditional GOP stronghold in the state with the most presidential electoral votes.

Rep. Chris Cox (R-Calif.) on June 7 said “the Los Angeles proposal is not under consideration by the DOT, which returned the memo to its authors some time ago.”

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), whose district is west of El Toro, has said he supports LAWA’s El Toro proposal, but that the final airport plan should be submitted to Orange County voters. He added, “An asset as important as El Toro to the future of Orange County, the region and U.S. taxpayers should not be thrown away.”