By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
YOU REMEMBER HOW EVERYBODY hated that old plan for fixing up LAX? The one that went down in flames a year or two ago? The one that helped get former Mayor James Hahn booted from office?
Let’s refresh. Hahn, just a few months before his election, won passage of a $9 billion plan for rebuilding Los Angeles International Airport, a place viewed as a total dump by pretty much everyone who uses it. The Hahn plan seemed to have a zillion different parts, all of them complicated: new terminals, a new shuttle system and, most famously, a new off-site passenger-loading area next to the 405 freeway that was immediately branded as a big, fat target for terrorists.
Everyone hated the LAX plan, or almost everyone. But no one hated it like residents north of the airport in Westchester and Playa del Rey, who eagerly lined up behind then-Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa, a rising star looking to unseat Hahn. Villaraigosa easily defeated the incumbent mayor in 2005 and, once in office, struck a legal deal with those communities to take much of Hahn’s airport plan off the table.
So here’s the funny part — unless, of course, you happen to live in neighborhoods north of the airport. The Hahn plan sought to reduce the likelihood of runway collisions by widening the space between the north runways. To do that, one of the north runways would be pushed 340 feet south, away from Westchester and Playa del Rey. “Hahn thought he was the savior of Westchester by saying, ‘I will move the runway south,’” said former Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski, who backed Hahn’s plan and left office in 2005. Instead, voters ran him out of town on a rail.
Now, airport commission president Alan Rothenberg, Villaraigosa’s top appointee at the airport, wants to improve runway safety, like Hahn before him. But with Rothenberg at the helm, airport officials have been talking aggressively about pushing the northernmost runway 340 feet north — right smack into the neighborhoods whose residents and business owners thought they had a deal with Villaraigosa to prevent airport expansion.
All of this renewed runway-expansion talk has left residents of Westchester and Playa del Rey seething, wondering if they were set up for a massive betrayal. Because if this new runway proposal prevails, the LAX-adjacent politicians who lined up behind Villaraigosa — Councilman Bill Rosendahl and U.S. representatives Jane Harman and Maxine Waters, to name only a few — will look like total saps.
For now, however, everyone is playing nice. Westchester community activist Denny Schneider predicted that Villaraigosa will “ride in on his white horse” to kill the new north runway plan. Airport commissioner Valeria Velasco, a Playa del Rey resident who took the Hahn plan to court, said she understands that Villaraigosa has to think about safety. And Rosendahl, standing next to the mayor last week, praised Villaraigosa for shifting a tiny fraction of the region’s air traffic to L.A./Palmdale Regional Airport, a place with exactly one gate.
“We in Los Angeles are so fortunate to have Antonio Villaraigosa as our mayor,” said Rosendahl, standing on the tarmac in Palmdale. A beaming Villaraigosa quickly gestured to Rosendahl: “I take him with me everywhere I go.”
And yet a few cracks have begun showing. Last week, Councilman Bernard Parks gently warned that the mayor will have “credibility issues” if he backs the latest runway plan. And Waters, who fought ferociously against the last LAX plan, called the runway concept “an insult to the community.”
“This is a debate we should not even be having,” said Waters, in a letter addressed to a standing-room-only crowd gathered at the Westchester Senior Center to discuss the runway plan last week. “There is absolutely no credible evidence that a safety issue exists on the north airfield.”
Villaraigosa, for his part, says he is not yet convinced of the need to widen the two north runways. And yet he keeps leaving the door open to a change of heart. “If, at some point, I’m convinced that there’s a safety issue, then we’ll make a determination about what we have to do to protect the health and safety,” said the mayor, standing near the moonscape of the high desert that surrounds Palmdale’s airport. “Ultimately, the one thing I understand is that I’m responsible. And when you’re responsible, you have to put safety first and foremost.”
Officials at Los Angeles World Airports followed Villaraigosa’s lead, producing a handful of safety studies on the north runway, each of which concluded that the runway should be pushed 340 feet to the north. To hammer their safety angle, one PowerPoint presentation on the runway plan included a photo of smoldering aircraft wreckage from a 1991 crash near LAX.
L.A.’s business leaders have gone even further, flying to Washington, D.C., to implore the Federal Aviation Administration to demand a 340-foot shift northward, widening the space between the two existing northern runways to 1,040 feet. But so far, the FAA is staying quiet. “I know what the FAA would like to do. But it’s such a politicized event that they won’t write the letter,” said Joe Czyzyk, president and CEO of Mercury Air Group, an airport tenant and representative of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce.