News Details

LAX Leader Proposes Charging OC to Fly

By Art Marroquin
LA Daily Breeze

October 20, 2007

Share the burden or cough up the cash.

That's the message airport commissioner Walter Zifkin sent this week by suggesting Orange County residents be charged a special fee to use Los Angeles International Airport.

Zifkin dusted off the failed idea to make Orange County literally pay for placing a series of growth caps at John Wayne Airport near Newport Beach, while also voting down an international airport at a decommissioned Marine Corps air station at El Toro.

"Their decision to burden LAX should be shared, and I believe a fee would be a very appropriate way to do that," said Zifkin, an executive with the William Morris Agency. "If this is something we are able to do, it is something that needs to be discussed."

But Orange County residents said their wallets shouldn't be squeezed by Los Angeles.

"LAX is the principal airport in the region, and it's just natural for people to use it because it's the only way people can get to certain destinations," said Leonard Kranser, a south Orange County resident who successfully led the opposition to building an airport at the El Toro air station.

"Slapping a fee against us will only increase antagonism and create some showmanship in the political arena," he said. "Their thinking is as parochial as Orange County deciding to charge L.A. residents to access Disneyland or our beaches. We aren't the only county using LAX."

In a survey of nearly 28,000 passengers flying out of LAX last year, 13 percent came from Orange County, according to figures provided by Los Angeles World Airports, the city agency that operates the airport.

In contrast, 77.7 percent of the airport's passengers came from Los Angeles County, while about 9.3 percent of those surveyed came from a combination of San Bernardino, Riverside, Ventura, San Diego and counties designated as "other."

LAX served more than 61 million passengers last year, but city officials agreed to limit the airport's growth to 78.9 million passengers annually and seek out ways to regionalize air traffic to other local airports under the terms of a settlement reached in 2005 with the county, three cities and the community group Alliance for a Regional Solution to Airport Congestion.

The Los Angeles Mayor's Office did not return several phone calls seeking comment on Zifkin's proposal.

Denny Schneider, ARSAC's president, called the plan "confusing."

"Of course I would encourage Orange County to start taking a portion of the air traffic burden, but I'm not sure how they would implement this," Schneider said. "If they can make it work, then it would be great."

Zifkin brought up the proposal Tuesday just before the airport commission agreed to seek out a contractor to install a cashless taxi cab fee collection system at LAX.

Zifkin suggested that a similar automatic payment system be put in place for Orange County residents making their way to LAX by cab or limousine.

"That idea triggered in my mind that we could use some sort of electronic pass for them to get into the airport," Zifkin said. "We need to seriously find out whether or not there's a way to do this."

Frank Mateljan, a spokesman for the Los Angeles City Attorney's Office, said he had not heard about Zifkin's request for a study. He said it's unclear whether such a fee would be legal.

Zifkin said a report could come before the Board of Airport Commissioners in as soon as two weeks.

This isn't the first time a Los Angeles airport commissioner has asked city lawyers to determine whether it would be legal to single out Orange County residents for a fee to use the airport.

Back in 2000, Leland Wong and airport commissioners appointed by then-Mayor Richard Riordan called on the City Attorney's Office to develop creative measures to force Orange County residents to pay a fee to use LAX.

The plan turned out to be illegal under federal laws.

Two years later, former Assemblyman George Nakano introduced a bill that suggested counties refusing to build airports to serve their share of the region's air traffic should forfeit state transportation funds.

While the state Legislature approved Nakano's measure, it was eventually vetoed by then-Gov. Gray Davis.

But the return of such a proposal demonstrates the frustration among some in Los Angeles who want to divert air traffic from LAX to other Southern California airports.

City officials are studying Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl's proposal to charge a road toll to motorists driving from outside Los Angeles County to LAX. Funds raised from the toll would go toward transportation projects, including a 2-mile extension of the Metro Green Line to LAX.

While Rosendahl's plan doesn't single out Orange County the way Zifkin's does, the councilman said his neighbors to the south should step up efforts to share the burden of the region's increasing air traffic.

"I want to work with Orange County, but these fees are a good thing to look into," said Rosendahl, whose district includes LAX. "Orange County still doesn't see that we're all in this together, but we hope that changes over time."

Orange County Supervisor John Moorlach disputed Rosendahl's claim, pointing to a major expansion effort under way at John Wayne Airport. A new terminal with six gates is slated for completion in four years.

"I get the sense that LAX doesn't want to play ball with us, and I'm a little disappointed because we are stepping up to the plate," said Moorlach, whose district includes John Wayne Airport. "This fee proposal only undermines any kind of relationship we're trying to build."

Orange County officials agreed to limit John Wayne Airport to 10.3 million passengers, growing incrementally to 10.8 million passengers by 2015.

A curfew limiting the hours airplanes can land and take off at the Orange County airport remains in place until 2020, under a settlement reached in 1985 between the county and Newport Beach residents who were upset about living beneath the airport's flight path.

Renewed efforts are under way to keep the airport from growing any further, according to Newport Beach resident Melinda Seely, president of AirFair, a community group launched five years ago to limit growth at John Wayne Airport.

"We don't want to see growth at John Wayne, but we really lost out with El Toro," said Seely, who explained that the airport issue had exploded into a near-civil war that pitted northern Orange County residents against their neighbors to the south.

"I know we're talking out of both sides of our mouth in some people's estimation, but we really don't feel that we can handle any more traffic at John Wayne," Seely said. "We would much rather send the traffic somewhere else."

The Marine Corps air station at El Toro was decommissioned in 1999 but had four runways that were immediately capable of handling commercial flights.

Orange County residents balked at the airport concept, however. They approved a proposal in 2002 to convert the 4,700-acre air station into a giant park rather than an international airport that would have served 18 million to 28 million passengers annually.

"I've always thought it was a shame that we lost the opportunity to have a ready-made commercial airfield that could have become an important airport," Zifkin said.

"I don't know if Orange County is even concerned with the problems we have at LAX. Their vote showed that they are only concerned with themselves."