LAX Can’t Get Off the Ground – Neighbors’ Resistance Too Much

Los Angeles Business Journal – Monday, October 1, 2012
By Christopher Thornberg and Dustin Schrader

For many travelers, Los Angeles International Airport is their first impression of the city. What do they see? Terminals that date to the 1960s. Airfields that fail to meet Federal Aviation Administration standard operational specifications for some modern aircraft. Obsolete facilities. Severe airport congestion and security services that cannot keep up with the flow of passenger traffic. Persistent delays.

Attempts to modernize the airport have had a long and frustrating history and, unfortunately, a plan being studied by the city that would significantly improve the airport’s safety and efficiency once again is likely to face the NIMBY-istic resistance that has kept LAX in the dark ages.

Despite the merits of a plan to renovate the airport’s North Airfield – according to the Specific Plan Amendment Study Draft Environmental Impact Report released July 27, a proposal to move the North Airfield 100 feet, 260 feet or 350 feet closer to Westchester developments to facilitate large modern aircraft like the B-747 and the Airbus A-380 would be a boon to safety – the plan’s success depends heavily on how much resistance the city receives from communities surrounding LAX. Stiff opposition or, even worse, lawsuits could stall or ultimately kill the project.Studies have shown that the airfield would be as much as 55 percent safer with a move.

And travelers would experience fewer delays because, incredibly, LAX is currently forced to shut down almost the entire North Airfield to accommodate takeoffs and landings of very large aircraft. Los Angeles World Airports, the city agency that oversees LAX, is also reviewing other parts of the plan, including how to site and finance improvements to the North Airfield and LAX terminals, and improve surface transportation by building a people mover connected to a ground transportation center and a rental car facility. These and other improvements detailed in the study would cost taxpayers nothing. At the same time, according to a study by the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp., modernization would generate 90,500 jobs in Los Angeles County and $14.4 billion in economic output, for $8.5 billion in spending.

LAX is the sixth busiest airport in the world, accommodating 62 million passengers in 2011. It is the flagship transportation hub for the entire West Coast. It receives more international passenger traffic from Asia than any other U.S. airport and the second most from Latin America. City officials have recognized LAX’s problems for years. In 1996, Mayor Richard Riordan proposed expanding LAX by over 40 percent from almost 60 million passengers to over 100 million. His plan called for expanding cargo facilities, renovating infrastructure and lengthening a runway. It fizzled because residents of nearby communities fought bitterly against the expansion, claiming more planes would pose a safety hazard and increase the likelihood of crashes despite evidence to the contrary. El Segundo even sued the city of Los Angeles.

Riordan termed out before his plan gained traction.His successor, James Hahn, proposed the LAX Master Plan in 2004. Again, neighboring communities rejected the changes, and residents in Manchester Square refused to accept a planned buyout of homes and apartments. El Segundo sued again, this time with support from other communities. Los Angeles shelved the plan in exchange for having the lawsuits dropped.

These communities functionally held the gateway to the L.A. economy hostage. Much of the LAX Master Plan has moved forward under Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, but transforming the airport into a 21st century facility might entail moving the North Airfield further north, something that could once again draw resistance from LAX neighbors.Competition heats up. While LAX spends year after year battling opposition to its essential improvement projects, many of the West Coast’s busiest airports are completing the modernization necessary to compete with LAX for air traffic. San Francisco International Airport completed a $1 billion international terminal in 2000 and a Bay Area Rapid Transit rail extension to the airport in 2003.

This month, the airport began construction on a new $102 million air traffic control tower. Seattle-Tacoma International Airport is undergoing a more than $4 billion capital improvement plan that includes reconstructing one of its runways, building another, as well as rebuilding airport infrastructure.Last month, McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas completed the $2.4 billion construction of an international terminal that will expand airport capacity to 53 million passengers a year.

NIMBY-ism in the county has prevented needed improvements to highway infrastructure, threatens the ability to expand the light train system and is threatening the region’s status as the West Coast’s predominant portal of entry. With LAX facilities and airfields long outdated, and other major airports equipping themselves to take on more and more traffic, the L.A. community needs to put localized interests aside and support modernization, including renovation of the North Airfield.

There is no neutral ground. The plan will have a significant positive impact on the long-term L.A. economy if completed. If not, the potential decline in LAX passenger traffic might have a very negative impact on the city’s quality of life.

Christopher Thornberg is the founding partner of Beacon Economics and a board member of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce. Dustin Schrader is a research associate at Beacon Economics.