The ongoing modernization of Los Angeles International Airport gained momentum Tuesday when the City Council approved $4.76 billion in additional improvements, including a controversial plan to move the northernmost runway closer to homes in Westchester and Playa del Rey.
The vote was a defeat for airport activists and community organizations that have fought to halt the runway project, which they charge would lead to an expansion of the nation's sixth-busiest airport and increase air pollution, noise and traffic congestion in their neighborhoods.
But an array of proponents, including labor leaders, prominent businesspeople and civic groups, heralded the decision as a significant step that will boost the sluggish local economy and further transform LAX — an aging 1960s complex that has received low marks from air travelers for decades.
"It's been a long, tough battle to get to this victory," said Alan Rothenberg, a former president of the city's airport commission and chairman of the Coalition to Fix LAX Now. "This has been the biggest hurdle to get over. Los Angeles World Airports has been careful to do everything right."
The runway approval, however, sets the stage for possible lawsuits that could threaten to delay or frustrate the modernization of LAX, much like the experience of Mayors Richard Riordan and James Hahn, whose ambitious proposals were halted by substantial opposition.
"We are going to have to go back to court. There is no choice," said Denny Schneider, president of the Alliance for a Regional Solution to Airport Congestion, a coalition of neighborhood groups and cities surrounding LAX that has battled earlier plans. "The members of the city, the county and the region all lost big today because they are going to spend all the money they have on a runway that is unneeded."
With their City Hall chambers packed with advocates on both sides of the issue, council members voted 10 to 4 to approve the proposed improvements and the environmental analysis of the projects, which include terminal additions, a consolidated car rental facility, an elevated people mover and a transportation center with links to light-rail service.
The most controversial proposal is the $652-million plan to separate the two northern runways by 260 feet to make room for a center taxiway — an improvement that was added to the southern runway complex several years ago.
Supporters on the council said the modernization projects are needed to provide jobs and turn LAX into a world-class airport capable of handling the largest commercial jets, such as the giant Airbus A380, safely and efficiently. They said the effect of the runway separation would be reduced through mitigation measures and no homes or businesses would have to be condemned.
Although they support modernizing LAX, council members Jan Perry, Dennis Zine, Eric Garcetti and Bill Rosendahl, whose district includes LAX and nearby neighborhoods, voted against the proposals because they said the runway proposal would foster dramatic growth at LAX and further degrade surrounding communities.
The positions of Zine, who is running for city controller, and Garcetti, a candidate in the May 21 mayoral runoff, could play well in Westchester and Playa del Rey, where there has been substantial resistance to the runway plan. Garcetti's opponent, City Controller Wendy Greuel, has not yet taken a position on the project.
"Los Angeles deserves a world-class airport, but the nearby community needs a world-class neighbor," said Garcetti, who, if elected, would have the power to influence LAX projects by selecting a new airport director and airport commissioners.
At the request of Councilman Richard Alarcon, the council also ordered a study of regionalizing airline flights — a key requirement of a 2006 court settlement that called on Los Angeles World Airports to try to spread the growth of air traffic at LAX to other airports in the area, such as struggling LA/Ontario International Airport. The policy is designed to reduce the adverse effects of LAX's growth on surrounding communities.
"We need to modernize LAX and we need regionalization," Rosendahl said. "It requires some patience. If we modernize LAX and pass the cost on to airlines, it will eventually provide an incentive for them to locate service at other airports."
In a related development, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted 4 to 0 to endorse a three-year effort by Inland Empire officials to wrest control of Ontario airport from Los Angeles. Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas abstained.
The undertaking now has more than 130 endorsements from cities, counties, business organizations, civic groups, regional planning agencies and elected officials on the local, state and federal levels.
Government officials from Riverside and San Bernardino counties contend that Los Angeles World Airports should no longer operate Ontario because it has not done enough to prevent a 40% drop in passengers.
Times staff writer Jason Song contributed to this report.