Does Region's Future Depend on 6th Runway?

No facility is more vital to the Southern California economy and its global future than Los Angeles International Airport. LAX pumps $44 billion, more than 8% of the region's output, into the five-county economy, the world's 11th largest; nearly 400,000 jobs are tied to its operations. Yet, it is fast approaching capacity. It must soon expand if the region's promise of becoming a global trade and tourist mecca is to be realized. As a result, a LAX Master Plan is now under preparation to guide airport development through the year 2015.

Last week, the airport's future possibilities were outlined. Airport planners unveiled four alternative expansion proposals--complete with new runways, terminals, concourses and roadways. Given LAX's regional importance, the public debate and local and federal approval processes for a preferred plan, scheduled for the next 12-18 months, will be among the most vital referenda ever held on Southern California's future.

Soaring demand coupled with limited and uncertain airport alternatives make LAX expansion necessary. The Master Plan estimates that LAX will need to serve 98 million annual passengers by 2015, up 92% from the 1994 base year. International service accounts for most of this growth. As for air cargo, LAX will need to handle 4.2 million tons in 2015--driven by global trade--up 140% from 1994 levels.

LAX's burgeoning global demand is concentrated in industries critical to the region's future: manufacturing, wholesale trade, high-tech electronics, medical equipment, transportation, entertainment and tourism. Each requires rapid access to global markets. Over one-half of Southern California's $160 billion in manufacturing output is now shipped by air to foreign and domestic markets, and air shipments are increasing. The fast-growing motion-picture industry depends on LAX to link locally based craft facilities and far-flung locations where productions are filmed. Should LAX expand to accommodate these needs, the airport could generate $64 billion in regional economic activity and 472,000 jobs by 2015.

For the immediate future, no other regional airport can match LAX's portfolio of international, long-haul and air-cargo flights. The short-haul domestic market is shifting to Ontario, Burbank, Long Beach and John Wayne airports, and this trend will continue. Yet, physical limits and air-quality ceilings limit growth at these airports. Palmdale, once touted as the next international airport, will remain a regional facility absent a multibillion-dollar investment in high-speed rail access to populated areas.

For the long term, former military bases--Norton, March, George, Pt. Mugu and El Toro--will probably serve international and air-cargo needs not handled by LAX. Most, though, are being readied as air-cargo airports. While the Orange County Board of Supervisors has approved El Toro as an international airport site capped at 25 million annual passengers--less than one-half of current LAX levels--its conversion could be delayed by lawsuits from surrounding residents. Under the cap, El Toro could not offer LAX's full range of flights.

With no alternative in sight to LAX as the region's primary airport, its expansion proposals deserve scrutiny. Differing dramatically in detail, the four share much in common. Each scenario, for example, has a "ring road" circumnavigating the airport to improve access to the San Diego and Century freeways and reduce traffic on neighborhood streets.

Each plan also would: add at least one runway (for a total of five) to accommodate more flights; improve the taxiway system to fit the next generation of larger aircraft; expand air-cargo capacity dramatically; provide new terminal facilities west of Tom Bradley International Terminal; create an automated people-mover system, and offer possible connections to the Green Line, should it be extended westward to LAX.

The proposals differ on the presumed need for a sixth runway. Scenario I, which has the least impact on the surrounding environment and is highly compact in design, includes a fifth runway only. As such, it falls farthest from meeting projected passenger growth. Scenarios II and III, which better meet future needs, add a sixth runway on the airport's north side, but with different locations. Scenario IV, the most novel but probably least feasible option, places a sixth runway nearby at Hawthorne Airport, and proposes to link the two airports with a busway.

With these plans, LAX signals its willingness to forego fully meeting future demand in order to be sensitive to the needs of the environment and neighboring communities. At 3,500 acres, LAX is a relatively small airport, handling the same number of passengers as Chicago's O'Hare Airport on one half the real estate. Its surroundings--the ocean, sand dunes, residences and businesses--limit its expansion possibilities. Thus, no runways are planned for the ocean. Only one plan involves the dunes west of LAX and would take away just four acres of the El Segundo blue-butterfly habitat. LAX plans to acquire some land in neighboring Westchester, none in El Segundo.

The Master Plan strategy is simple: to build the broadest possible public consensus for expansion, even if it means sacrificing potential economic benefits. As such, it represents an open invitation to the region to develop new airport sites in Orange, San Bernardino, Riverside and Ventura counties to meet future needs.

Should LAX be unable to adequately expand, other Western cities have ambitious airport plans to capture the Pacific Rim trade and tourism now flowing to Los Angeles. San Francisco, billing itself as the "Pacific gateway," is building a new international terminal. Seattle/Tacoma airport is planning to add a runway. Denver, Phoenix and Las Vegas are vying for Pacific Rim status with major airport investments.

To date, Los Angeles has become the Pacific Rim capital because LAX, coupled with the ports, have given Southern California residents and businesses unmatched global access, while providing the Pacific Rim ready access to Southern California. LAX directly links the region's economy to the fast-growing East Asian nations, where up to 60% of the world's economic growth is predicted to occur in the next decades.

However, if little or nothing is done to embellish the region's brightest crown jewel--the key to Southern California's ability to compete in the international economy--we risk sabotaging an even more promising future and costing hundreds of thousands of potential jobs. This is what the upcoming public debate over the LAX Master Plan is all about.*

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