LAX and the culture of Mulhollandism

STEVEN P. ERIE is a professor of political science at UC San Diego. SCOTT A. MACKENZIE is a doctoral candidate at the university. They are completing "Troubled Paradise: Fiscal Crisis and Political Turmoil in San Diego."

LOS ANGELES, the city that huge public works projects built, has developed a bad case of airport envy. Having in the early 1960s led the nation into the Jet Age with state-of-the-art facilities, Los Angeles International Airport now looks shabby compared with the gleaming new terminals at San Francisco and Seattle-Tacoma airports. Adding insult to injury, the restaurant in the iconic Theme Building closed last week because of structural weaknesses in the arches. With the number of available international seats going through LAX dropping 12% since 9/11, its status as a major global hub appears threatened. Recently, alarmed L.A. officials hastily revived plans to build 11 new gates at the Tom Bradley International Terminal.

Compared with its gleaming West Coast rivals, however, LAX’s international passenger losses are small. Despite the large drop in available international seats and the airport’s “cramped and old” facilities, there was only a modest 3% decline in international passengers from 2000 to 2006. In contrast, the number of international passengers going through San Francisco airport, which opened its new $1-billion international passenger terminal in 2000, was up only 2%, while at Seattle-Tacoma, which also recently renovated its terminals, the number grew a measly 3%. One big reason for these lackluster figures is the difficulty of obtaining U.S. tourist visas since 9/11.

Nevertheless, the praise heaped on larger, newer airports has many Angelenos wondering whether the city needs a comparable facility to retain its competitive edge. The sectors that power Southern California’s economy -- international trade, tourism, technology, entertainment and professional services -- depend on airports to connect the region with the rest of the nation and the global economy. A new generation of longer-range aircraft that makes it possible to fly nonstop from Asian airports to such U.S. cities as Phoenix and Las Vegas adds urgency to the question. If San Francisco can upgrade its airport in dramatic fashion and attract new business, why can’t L.A.?


The problem is that L.A. remains addicted to the “culture of Mulhollandism” -- grandiose, expensive public works projects that require the sort of over-planning that inevitably inflames opposition and results in stalemate. In San Francisco, by contrast, community and environmental representatives were closely involved from the get-go in planning for the airport’s upgrade, and the steps taken were relatively modest.

In the early 20th century, public entrepreneurs, such as William Mulholland, could marshal the civic will and resources to build the Los Angeles and Colorado River aqueducts, the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach and the L.A. Municipal Airport, which became LAX. These huge public works became the foundation for the region’s subsequent growth and economic prosperity.

In the final decade of the century, however, Mulhollandism persisted even as the political terrain shifted dramatically. In densely populated Southern California, new mega-projects became much more difficult to build because of community opposition, environmental challenges and funding constraints.

Years of unrealistic, overly ambitious LAX master planning have contributed to the region’s current airport-capacity problems. Among these grand projects was the 98 million air passenger “runway in the bay” -- to be built on a berm in Santa Monica Bay -- proposed in the mid-1990s. Then there was the more recent “Alternative D,” a hastily assembled $12-billion proposal to promote “safety and security” at LAX after 9/11. It called for the creation of an off-airport passenger check-in facility at Manchester Square, the demolition of terminals and LAX’s central parking structure and the extension of runways toward Westchester.

Efforts to plan for new airports in the rest of Southern California, where the shortfall is greatest, have been similarly affected by Mulhollandism. In 1996, Orange County officials christened plans for a new airport at El Toro, claiming that it would rival LAX in size. El Toro was subsequently scaled down to a “community-friendly” facility less than half its original size. By then, the proposal had galvanized opponents, and the site was ultimately lost to proponents of a Great Park, a landscape of artificial lakes, streams and a rugged canyon. This was the last great opportunity in the region for a major new international airport to supplement LAX.

More recently, the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority completed a site study for a new airport to replace severely overtaxed Lindbergh Field. Rather than evaluate modest alternatives that would supplement existing facilities, officials focused on winning voter approval for a major two-runway international airport. The results were predictable. With no suitable civilian sites available, San Diego airport officials selected Marine Corps Air Station Miramar as the site of the new airport and put the idea on the November 2006 ballot. The proposal, which angered both the military and communities nearby, was soundly defeated by San Diego voters.

For better or worse, it is unlikely that a major new airport will be built in Southern California again. As a result, regional management of our airports has to improve, and that can be more easily accomplished if we overcome our addiction to Mulhollandism. For example, airports such as L.A./Ontario International should be protected from incompatible housing development that might produce NIMBYs who complain about noise. Enlarging and adding road access to that airport is another example of a modest enhancement that would yield immediate dividends. At LAX, the addition of the 11 gates at the Bradley Terminal is a prime example of a sensible upgrade, as is the new system of flyaway buses that allows remote ticketing and baggage check-in.

Abandoning Mulhollandism will mean that politicians will probably have fewer ribbons to cut. But the reward will be a more efficient regional airport system in which our scarce resources are directed to improvements that benefit those who live, work in and travel to Southern California.