Council Backs LAX Project

Times Staff Writers

After a decade of debate and millions of dollars in studies, the City Council signed off Wednesday on an $11-billion plan to modernize Los Angeles International Airport that would move runways, build new terminals, install people movers and construct a central check-in facility.

The controversial plan, one of the city's largest public works projects and the first LAX overhaul since the 1984 Olympics, won the votes of 12 of 15 council members, a lopsided endorsement that seemed improbable during years of contentious debate.

The most ambitious remake in the airport's 75-year history could start next year and take at least 10 years to complete.

"It is historic," said Cindy Miscikowski, the airport-area councilwoman who devised a compromise with Mayor James K. Hahn that broke a stalemate over his plan. "This one does feel good."

Despite the resounding vote, some critical questions remain, including whether the plan will withstand a court challenge, whether it does enough to protect travelers against terrorist attacks and whether it will ease vehicle traffic at the frequently congested airport.

The plan still needs the approval of federal aviation officials and will almost certainly draw lawsuits from ardent opponents who believe that it will worsen traffic and noise at the world's fifth-busiest airport.

The compromise splits the project into two phases. The most controversial elements -- including a new check-in center in Westchester that has drawn heated opposition -- would come in a second phase that would require additional studies before construction.

The first phase, costing $2.9 billion, would include:

* Relocating the southernmost runway and adding a center taxiway to keep planes from coming too close to each other.

* Constructing a transit center and a people mover to link bus lines and the Green Line with the airport's terminals.

* Building a consolidated rental car center.

* Adding gates to Tom Bradley International Terminal.

Airport officials hope to start the runway project next year. The runway in question -- one of four at LAX -- would be closed about a year while crews worked around the clock to rebuild it 55 feet closer to El Segundo. Airport officials say the closure would not have a significant impact on travelers.

The modernization plan sparked intense lobbying. Many airport-area politicians and residents vigorously opposed it, while the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce and labor unions, in a rare collaboration, called it essential to creating jobs and keeping LAX competitive. Businesses and unions that could benefit from the project are key donors to the mayor and council members.

On Wednesday, business and labor leaders gathered with the mayor, Miscikowski and council President Alex Padilla for a round of backslapping, photographs and congratulations.

"The city is committed to creating a safer, more secure, more modern airport," Hahn said, adding that, by 2015, the renovated LAX would be contributing $64 billion a year to the regional economy.

Airport officials left City Hall after the vote and went to a nearby restaurant to celebrate.

"No plan has ever gotten this far," said Kim Day, interim executive director for Los Angeles World Airports, the city airport agency. "This is a great day for the mayor and a great day for the airport."

Several union representatives, who have attended about 25 debates over the last three years, filed out of the council chambers after the vote, with one emphatically stating: "Let's go build an airport."

During the three-hour debate, council members made impassioned speeches for and against the proposal.

"We have the third-largest harbor in the world because a former council member stood up. We have water in Los Angeles because someone stood up," said Councilman Greig Smith. "We've talked for 10 years about this without anyone standing up and saying it's time to take this vision and make this a reality.... I hope to God in 20 years someone will stand up and say, 'They had the guts.' "

Councilmen Bernard C. Parks, Antonio Villaraigosa and Jack Weiss voted against the plan, saying it was too expensive, was unsound legally and wouldn't make LAX more secure.

Parks and Villaraigosa are challenging Hahn in the March mayoral election. Weiss, who has endorsed Villaraigosa, has maintained that the compromise plan will prompt litigation.

"We need to be honest now with the public so we can be honest with a judge later, because that's where this is going," Weiss said. "My concern is that this will be an economic engine for lawyers rather than workers."

Indeed, longtime foes of Hahn's plan and of a $12-billion proposal by his predecessor, Mayor Richard Riordan, said they were holding fundraisers and collecting pledges from well-heeled benefactors in preparation for filing a lawsuit.

"Rest assured, they haven't heard the last from us," said Mike Gordon, former mayor of El Segundo and a candidate for state Assembly. Gordon worked with airport-area residents to collect 17,000 signatures from residents who opposed the mayor's plan.

During Wednesday's debate, council members, even those who voted against the compromise, repeatedly thanked Miscikowski for her work to "resurrect" Hahn's proposal, saying that without her efforts the plan would probably have been dead on arrival at City Hall.

"Cindy Miscikowski doesn't know how to do anything small," said Councilman Martin Ludlow. "She takes on big issues and makes them make sense."

The airport became part of Miscikowski's district after redistricting in 2002. At first, she was critical of Hahn's plan, but she eventually worked with him to devise a compromise proposal in June that divided the project into two phases.

Reworking the plan, rather than starting from scratch, was essential, she said, to save the 10 years and $130 million the city had already spent studying how to remodel LAX.

Miscikowski's plan puts the most controversial elements in a second phase of "yellow light" projects. Those include two new terminals, the passenger check-in center at Manchester Square in nearby Westchester, a second people mover, and the demolition of the central parking garages and Terminals 1, 2 and 3.

The yellow-light projects would cost about $8 billion. None of them could be built without council approval after more studies on the environmental impact, security, traffic and passenger increases. Most council members said this extra level of scrutiny reassured them.

Although the two-phased approach brought the airlines and business groups on board, the county Board of Supervisors, airport-area residents and other South Bay cities remain opposed.

Airport officials cannot start construction until the Federal Aviation Administration signs off on the plan. FAA officials conducted environmental studies on Hahn's plan in concert with city officials, but could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

The council also has to take another vote to make the plan official. With Wednesday's action, the council signaled its intention to approve the plan in the second vote, scheduled for Dec. 7.

These steps are required because the county Airport Land Use Commission ruled earlier this year that the plan would create more noise and safety risks in nearby communities, making it inconsistent with a 1991 county land-use plan.

Under state law, the council had to muster a 10-vote supermajority to override this finding and had to give the county 45 days to reply before the council took a final vote. Votes from the 12 council members who backed the plan Wednesday would be enough to override any further objections from the land use commission.

Wednesday's debate centered on questions about Hahn's complicated proposal that have remained unanswered for years.

Council members, worried that the two-phase approach could invalidate the environmental studies, quizzed a representative of the city attorney's office about what would happen if they eliminated the most controversial projects.

If the council killed the check-in center, "you would have to spend more time and money doing a study," said Claudia Culling, an assistant city attorney who is an expert on the plan. She added that such a study could take up to 30 months and could endanger the whole plan.

Several members also questioned whether the first-phase projects would make the airport more secure and called on the council to postpone its vote until Rand Corp. completed a study on the plan next spring.

"The problem is: A full-bore security analysis has not been done yet," Weiss said. "I don't think it's appropriate to vote until we have that study."

Also debated were the benefits that would be provided to nearby residents to offset increases in noise, air pollution and traffic that would result from years of LAX construction. Ludlow convinced his colleagues to unanimously commit to improving a community benefits package that the airport is currently negotiating with 26 organizations.

Perhaps the most dramatic moment came when Councilman Tom LaBonge asked Jim Ritchie, a deputy executive director at the airport agency, to help him illustrate a key point.

LaBonge handed Ritchie a water bottle wrapped with string. The councilman held the end of the string while Ritchie walked backward with the bottle, slowly spooling out the string until he reached the sixth row of wooden pews in council chambers. The line drew taut.

"All we're asking for is 50 feet," LaBonge intoned, referring to the approximate distance the southern runway would be moved closer to El Segundo. "This is all we're asking for, Mr. Parks. This is all we're asking for, Mr. Villaraigosa. This is all we're asking for, Mr. Weiss. I ask for an aye vote for 50 feet for safety and 50 feet for the future."

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