Airport Planners Need to Rise Above It All

Who speaks for the region? That's a question that becomes more pertinent every day as air traffic increases through Southern California's airports and plans for expansion bring out the natural reluctance of area 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 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 breather will be short-lived. The growth of passenger and cargo traffic, especially international 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 opposition 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 questions and opposition to its plans.

Attention should be paid to the opposition, not because it is always correct, 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 first thing to say about the region's air traffic is that it 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.

Instead both counties fly their international passengers on 100 commuter flights a day up to LAX, accounting for 34% of its air traffic but fewer than 5% of its passengers. Freight from Orange County and San Diego get trucked up the clogged 405 Freeway.

Why don't those counties build an international airport? Opposition from residents, which has further slowed a decision on converting El Toro Marine Corps Air Station.

The Orange County Board of Supervisors will receive four proposals for reuse of El Toro next month, two of them including an airport. At best, ground will be broken for an airport at El Toro in 2006 to 2008. The delays will only worsen problems.

For the growth in the Inland Empire, Ontario Airport is expanding. It 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 only a dozen miles from Ontario. March Air Force Base in Riverside is a possible destination for all-cargo jetliners and could be an asset in trade with Asia and Latin America.

For now, however, the focus of international airlines and shippers is on LAX, which is trying to proceed with a master plan to expand that will ultimately cost "$8 billion to $12 billion," according to LAX staff.

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But opposition has arisen from unexpected sources. South Bay cities, ranging from El Segundo to Torrance, have voiced reservations about LAX expansion. They have been criticized by airport supporters as churlish because increased business through LAX helped their communities recover from the recession of the early '90s.

"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 master 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 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 other runways for the 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 for a new airport.

Palmdale can be considered for an airport 25 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, federal officials and taxpayers suspect that nobody in Southern California really knows what they're doing. Clearly, somebody has to speak for the region.

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