Neighbors battle Los Angeles airport's plans to move runway

Published: Sunday, Mar. 10, 2013 - 2:00 am | Page 3A
Last Modified: Sunday, Mar. 10, 2013 - 11:40 am

LOS ANGELES – For almost as long as there's been an LAX, there have been raging controversies over how big the airport would eventually grow and how many homes and businesses would be sacrificed for that progress.

Back in the late 1960s, some 800 residences just west of Los Angeles International Airport were razed because of jet noise and safety concerns.

Since then, tens of millions of dollars have been spent to insulate thousands of schools and homes east of the airport to withstand aircraft thunder, while legal and political fights erupted over various expansion plans.

But for the last few years, the loudest battle has been over whether to move the airport's northernmost runway closer to the upper-middle class and politically influential neighborhoods of Westchester and Playa del Rey.

That off-and-on skirmish is on again now that the Los Angeles World Airports commission has approved such a plan.

"We're not going to sit back and not protect the region from the environmental impacts that are caused by another expansion at LAX," said Denny Schneider, who heads the community group Alliance for a Regional Solution to Airport Congestion. Asked if a lawsuit was in the offing, Schneider replied, "Yeah, putting it bluntly."

But supporters of the runway plan contend it will improve the airport's ability to handle ever-larger airplanes that can ferry in more tourists and business passengers who in turn will drive more economic growth. As for Westchester's complaints, one advocate sounded a bit exasperated.

"That airport belongs to the 4 million citizens of Los Angeles and serves 20 million" in the region, said Gary Toebben, president and chief executive of the Los Angeles Area Chamber Of Commerce. "This issue is important to Westchester … but they are not the only issue at play in this decision."

There's little debate about most of the airports commission's $4.8 billion construction plan, which includes long-delayed projects to upgrade terminals and install a tram to connect the airport with a new consolidated rental car facility, a bus depot, parking lots and a station for the region's light-rail system.

But commissioners bundled those projects with another that would shift the runway dubbed 6L/24R northward by 260 feet, and create a taxiway between it and an adjacent runway. Airport officials insist the $750 million runway project would allow a safer and more efficient interplay between outsized aircraft, such as Airbus A380s and Boeing 787s, that have just landed and planes trying to depart. For one thing, they contend, pilots would have a better view of oncoming traffic when trying to cross the adjacent runway.

The Federal Aviation Administration, whose ground controllers now impose special taxiing procedures after hefty planes land, by law cannot force the airports commission to move a runway. But it has long insisted the commission add substantially more real estate between the northern runways.

"What I can do, and what I will do, is to urge Los Angeles to get going. Fix that north airfield now," then-FAA Administrator Marion Blakey said in 2007.

Yet, a 2010 study that Los Angeles World Airports commissioned found such a fix to be unnecessary. Conducted under the auspices of NASA's Ames Research Center, it concluded that LAX's north airfield "is extremely safe under the current configuration." Shifting the northernmost runway could increase safety only slightly, the report added.

That leads Valeria Velasco to wonder why the world airports commission wants to spend so much money for seemingly little payoff. Velasco, the lone commissioner to oppose the runway plan, suspects airport officials are setting the stage to go way beyond the 153 gates – and the nearly 80 million passengers a year that can get through them – to which the airport is now limited. (An unsuccessful 1993 airport expansion proposal envisioned 100 million passengers annually, but last year, about 63.7 million rolled through about 140 active gates, LAX officials say.)

"More planes. More noise. More pollution," said Velasco, a longtime community activist whose Playa del Rey home of 24 years sits on a hill overlooking LAX's north airfield. "This airport is only 3,600 acres. At some point, you just can't keep piling people into such a geographically small airport."

In fact, the NASA report stated that moving runway 6L/24R would increase the airport's capacity "significantly."

Still, airport officials insist they're not trying to cram more travelers into what is the world's sixth-busiest airfield. "We're not expanding the airport," said Diego Alvarez, the airports commission's top staffer on the plan. "We're just trying to modernize it to better accommodate the same number of people."

The plan's critics contend there are cheaper ways to improve safety, such as installing more control lights on runways and taxiways. And they allege the commission has de-emphasized other airports it controls that could relieve LAX of some of its air traffic burdens.

But regionalization now appears far off. The Palmdale facility the commission owns, some 66 miles to the north, no longer supports commercial flights, and local authorities want to take it over. Likewise, Ontario officials are pursuing control of that city's airfield. Airports in Burbank, Orange County and Long Beach are independently controlled.

Besides, Alvarez noted, the commission can neither force airlines to move flights to outlying airports nor require passengers to patronize those airfields.

The runway plan is by no means a foregone conclusion. It still must be reviewed by Los Angeles County, which has signaled displeasure with the commission's regionalization efforts, and the Los Angeles City Council. Outgoing Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who pledged as a candidate 12 years ago to oppose LAX expansion plans, or his successor who takes office in July, also will get a shot at it.

And if the plan gets by those hurdles, Schneider's group and its allies are circling just north of LAX, lawyers at the ready.

Herbert A. Sample is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. He can be reached at hasample@mac.com.

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Read more articles by Herbert A. Sample



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