The Navy's decision last month to unload a closed Marine air base in Orange County, Calif., apparently ends hope for a $3-billion commercial airport on the site and further clouds the airport planning picture in fast-growing Southern California.

Jay Berkowitz/LAWA
Ontario airport serves 6.7 million people a year and could handle a greater load.

The Navy disclosed April 23 that it will sell the 4,700-acre former El Toro Marine Corps Air Station or turn it over to a local government. The news was expected after Orange County voters on March 5 passed an anti-airport measure and defeated a pro-airport county supervisor. The two votes "basically killed the airport," says Gary Simon, El Toro Local Redevelopment Authority executive director.

The airport's disappearance ends a $50-million, decade-long planning process and puts more pressure on a regional system projected to serve 167 million passengers annually by 2025. "The door on El Toro is now closed," Simon says. "We have got to somewhere, some way, build new runways in Southern California."

"There is absolutely no engineering or planning challenge [to airport expansion]; it is a political challenge," contends Hasan Ikhrata, director of transportation planning for the Southern California Association of Governments, a Los Angeles-based planning agency.

"These large, complex, controversial infrastructure projects are extraordinarily difficult to implement," Simon concurs.

Caps on passenger growth at many airports will restrict expansion, Los Angeles airport officials note. Regional workhorse Los Angeles International Airport may no longer be able to pick up the slack. In October, Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn (D) said he is seeking a scaled-back alternative to the $12-billion expansion backed by his predecessor, former Mayor Richard J. Riordan.

Los Angeles is counting on its two smaller airports to help ease the load. The local office of HNTB Corp. is developing a $3.9-million master plan for Ontario International Airport in eastern L.A. County, where a $270-million terminal opened in 1998. Ontario handles 6.7 million passengers annually, well below its 10-million-passenger capacity. Palmdale also is expected to grow.