Expanding the capacity of the nation's aviation system has quickly risen toward the top of the Bush administration's transportation priorities. Both Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta and Federal Aviation Administration chief Jane Garvey have spoken about the need to build more runways during the next decade, and they have suggested that speeding federal environmental reviews is one way to hurry along construction.
The Bush administration's advocacy is welcome news for proponents of San Francisco and Los Angeles airport expansion and construction of a new airport at the former El Toro Marine Corps base in Orange County — all projects with major regional implications.
However, analysts caution that the federal government's ability to force runway construction is limited. And they say that local political pressures — not federal environmental regulations — are usually responsible for stalled or canceled airport projects.
Bush administration officials say the nation needs more runways to accommodate a projected increase in passenger air travel of nearly 50% between 2000 and 2010, and even greater growth in air cargo. The economy increasingly relies on aviation to move goods, workers and consumers efficiently, they say.
During a speech in late March to the American Association of Airport Executives, Mineta emphasized the need to expand aviation infrastructure. He said that implementing existing expansion plans at the nation's busiest airports, including SFO and LAX "will substantially increase the capacity of the national airport system."
Mineta said the FAA will propose environmental streamlining measures to Congress. "We are also working on a number of initiatives of our own to expedite and streamline environmental reviews for airport improvement projects without legislation," he said. "For example, the FAA has proposed establishing a team for each new EIS for a major runway enhancement project at large hub primary airports." San Francisco is among the airports to receive one of these EIS teams.
Mineta continued, "We are working on an initiative to streamline environmental requirements for all airport projects within the current structure of environmental laws. This includes expansion of the projects that are exempted, using a shorter environmental assessment form, and limits on EIS size." Details will be worked out this summer.
The pronouncements sounded good the airport executives group, which has complained that review processes drag on too long. Using the same reasoning, U.S. Sen Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) has introduced legislation (S. 633) that would require federal, state and local agencies to perform all reviews required by the National Environmental Policy Act concurrently, and require the Transportation Department to set a date certain for completion of environmental studies.
Whether the implementation of federal environmental regulations — and even the regulations themselves — needs to change is a growing debate, with environmental group and business interests digging in their heels on opposite sides. However, David Luberoff, Associate Director of the A. Alfred Taubman Center for State and Local Government at Harvard, said he could think of only two recent airport projects that were halted at the federal level — a third airport for Chicago and a new airport at the former Homestead Air Force base in South Florida. And the south Chicago proposal appears to be getting back on track.
"This is not the first administration that has tried to push on building more airport capacity. The question is to what extent are the obstacles federal, and to what extent are the obstacles local?" said Luberoff, an infrastructure policy expert.
Increasing airport capacity was a major priority during the later half of the Reagan administration and during the first Bush administration. Yet the only new airport to come from that era was in Denver, Luberoff said. The Denver airport was built primarily because city officials selected a site far from town and because the local economy was so weak at the time that many people agreed on building the airport to stimulate commerce, he said.
The only existing airports to add substantial capacity in recent years are in cities such as Atlanta and Dallas, where the business community dominates the political scene, Luberoff observed. California has a very different political environment.
"If you think about what is preventing a new airport at El Toro or expansion at LAX, it is intense local opposition. There is no local political consensus for the project," Luberoff said.
Michael Dardia, a research fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California, agreed that the federal government's role is limited. The proposal to build new SFO runways in the bay, for example, remains primarily a local issue.
Washington can provide carrots for projects, Dardia said. It could pay for the inevitable cleanup of pollution at El Toro, grease the base reuse process with cash, or provide grants to insulate homes near the site, he said.
"If the federal government was really on board, it certainly could throw money at it. But these are wealthy communities [near El Toro] so that might not have as much influence," Dardia said. Federal officials "are not really in a position to force the community to accept this as an airfield. This is an issue that the FAA is wrestling with in general."
Federal officials could also use sticks in the airport capacity debate, such as boosting landing fees for certain times of day at SFO to force airlines to use Oakland or San Jose airports. A trial balloon for such an idea was floated in April.
What will happen with California's airports is far from certain. The debate over building runways for SFO in the bay — the only place to put new runways — rages on. Legislation is advancing (SB 244, Speier) that would essentially give San Mateo County supervisors veto power over the project. The airport is in San Mateo County, and it is those supervisors' constituents who the most vocal project opponents. In April, SFO released a report it commissioned by Charles Rivers Associates that found there are no real options for increasing Bay Area aviation capacity besides expanding SFO.
Four hundred miles to the south, the Southern California Association of Governments in April adopted a Regional Transportation Plan that spreads airport growth across the region. The plan calls for half as much expansion as the City of Los Angeles has planned for LAX, and a quadrupling of Ontario airport's usage. The plan also assumes an El Toro airport would be about half the size of the current LAX by 2025.
Los Angeles officials vowed to push ahead with their $12 billion expansion anyway. El Toro remains mired in litigation and political bickering. A fourth ballot measure regarding El Toro's future is likely to appear this November.
David Luberoff, A. Alfred Taubman Center for State and Local Government, (617) 495-1346.
Michael Dardia, Public Policy Institute of California, (415) 291-4416.
U.S. Department of Transportation: www.dot.gov
American Association of Airport Executives: www.airportnet.org
Southern California Association of Governments, Regional Transportation Plan: www.scag-rtp.govconnect.org