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.
Technically, the FAA signed off two years ago on a north runway redesign — the one encased in Hahn’s LAX plan. But with that plan tabled, all the agency can do now is await a new proposal from Los Angeles city leaders, said FAA spokesman Ian Gregor. “The FAA has been on record in stating that we believe the airport should do something to improve safety on the north airfield. But the airport has not yet presented us with a plan,” he said.
IF ANYONE FACES POLITICAL PERIL over the runway brouhaha, it is Rosendahl, the councilman who rode into office in 2005 on one big “anti” platform — anti–LAX expansion, anti–Playa Vista, anti-development in general. His effort to stop tenant evictions at Lincoln Place in Venice fell short. His push for a separate agency to extend the Metro Green Line to LAX just got squashed in Sacramento. A betrayal on the north runway could prove devastating for Rosendahl, who is up for re-election in two years.
Some Rosendahl supporters are hoping the proposal to move the runway northward by more than the length of a football field is just a bargaining chip, a gambit by airport officials to secure modest changes to the north runways. The thinking goes like this: By vigorously asking for 340 feet, LAX might persuade neighborhoods to accept a more modest northward shift of 100 feet.
But that theory began looking shaky last week. Appearing before the airport commission, Jim Ritchie, the LAX official in charge of long-range planning, hinted that the north runway parameters might need to be widened not by 340 feet but by 400 feet to accommodate the new jumbo A380 airplanes. Ritchie then suggested that moving it 546 feet — more than one-tenth of a mile — would satisfy international aviation standards.
If the airport commission — a group handpicked by Villaraigosa — becomes dead-set on moving the runway 340 feet, the only way to spare Westchester and Playa del Rey an increase in noise would be to move both those runways south. But to do that, the airport would need to demolish three major passenger terminals. And to demolish three terminals, LAX would quite possibly have to create a new airport facility near the 405.
Or to put it another way, they would need to resurrect the Hahn plan. So within five years, everyone would end up where they started.
Sooner or later, Villaraigosa will need to present his own LAX plan, one that modernizes the airport’s sad-looking facilities. The plan was originally supposed to reach the Los Angeles City Council by October 2008. Ritchie, the airport official, hinted that the new timetable could push into spring 2009 — right after Villaraigosa’s hoped-for election to a second, and final, term of office.
If that happens, the post-election Mayor Villaraigosa, now safe from voter retribution, would be able to push any LAX plan he wants without fear. When it comes to the airport, Villaraigosa learned from the mistakes of his predecessor.