Who speaks for the region? The need for political leadership in Southern California is becoming painfully obvious as air traffic increases through the region's airports but plans for expansion bring out the natural reluctance of politicians, officials and just plain folks to deal with reality.
Traffic through Los Angeles International Airport--the only international airport for the region's 15 million people--is growing exponentially. Two years ago, LAX handled 54 million passengers; last year it handled 60 million. At that growth rate, the existing facilities will max out in two years at over 70 million passengers.
LAX may get a short breather. The Asian crisis will slow growth of traffic somewhat this year and next, says Jack Driscoll, director of the city's airports. But the growth of passenger and cargo traffic is such that LAX will reach 100 million passengers long before it is projected to do so by a master plan now being debated.
Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan hailed the expansion plans for LAX on his recent Asian trip as he stood at the construction site of Hong Kong's spectacular $21-billion new airport. But he and LAX have run into criticism here at home.
Instead of cheers that LAX's growth will mark Los Angeles as the global commercial center of the 21st century, the airport today is getting opposition to its plans.
Riordan needs to deal with that opposition, not because it is always correct or even well-intentioned, but because Southern California needs to make intelligent decisions about airport expansion. It cannot afford to let opposition descend into obstruction and delay.
Therefore we should understand the issues and think about sensible solutions. The region's air traffic is unbalanced. LAX gets all the traffic but Los Angeles County doesn't get all the business.
Orange County is growing rapidly in international trade, yet it has no international airport. Neither does San Diego County. John Wayne Airport and Lindbergh Field are small and restricted by law from expanding.
So passengers from both counties fly 100 commuter flights a day to make connections at LAX, filling its runways. Freight from Orange County and San Diego get trucked up the clogged freeways.
Why don't those counties build an international airport? Opposition from residents, which has further slowed conversion of El Toro Marine Corps Air Station. At best, El Toro will become an international airport in 2010-12, a delay that will only worsen the burden on LAX.
Other airports will take some added traffic. Serving growth in the Inland Empire, Ontario Airport will open two new runways late this year to handle domestic freight and passengers. It could also increase its traffic with Mexico and Central America.
The former Norton Air Force Base in San Bernardino County is ready for civilian traffic, but it is too near Ontario to be useful. March Air Force Base in Riverside County is a possible destination for all-cargo jetliners and could be an asset in trade with Asia and Latin America.
But for major growth in traffic, international airlines and shippers focus on LAX, which is trying to proceed with a master plan of expansion that will ultimately cost "$8 billion to $12 billion," according to airport estimates.
Opposition has arisen from thoughtful parties as well as grandstanding politicians. South Bay cities, ranging from El Segundo to Torrance, have voiced reservations about LAX expansion even though they benefit greatly from increased trade and commerce at the airport.
"We're not opposed to LAX expansion," explains Mayor Dee Hardison of Torrance, speaking as chair of the 16-city South Bay Council of Governments. But the cities would like to examine the airport's plan before decisions are made by default, she says.
Mayor Sandra Jacobs of El Segundo expresses similar reservations about being consulted and also thinks that growth of air traffic to Southern California should be spread regionally.
And L.A. Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, whose district includes the airport, advises the region to think big for the next century. Galanter proposes creating a new international airport in Palmdale, to be linked to Los Angeles, Orange and other counties by high-speed rail.
Her idea has been dismissed by Riordan, among others, as unrealistic because there are few people and little industry around Palmdale and because a region that cannot build a subway to the San Fernando Valley won't soon build high-speed rail.
Yet Galanter has a point for the long-term future of this region. And most important, bickering will get us nowhere.
What should be done? Riordan should exert political leadership to campaign for a realistic and urgent LAX expansion plan. The airport urgently needs to add one runway to handle commuter traffic, freeing up others for long-distance and international flights.
Then he and others, including candidates for governor of California, need to speak up on Southern California's growing air traffic requirements. If Orange County won't build an airport at El Toro, perhaps land at Camp Pendleton can be allocated by the federal government.
Palmdale can be considered for an international airport 20 years from now--which is not an eternity given the time it takes to get airports approved.
The danger is that the area will immerse itself in quarreling while plans for expanding airports die of their own weight. On that point, LAX's calculation that its master plan will cost "$8 billion to $12 billion" is ominous. It's the kind of loose estimate that makes airlines and federal officials suspect that nobody in Southern California really knows what they're doing. Clearly, somebody has to speak for the region. If not Riordan, who?
James Flanigan can be reached at email@example.com