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$4.8 Billion LAX Airport Modernization Approved

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The Los Angeles City Council signed off today on a long-debated, $4.8 billion plan to expand and modernize LAX, despite intense opposition from Westchester and Playa del Rey community groups that claim the project would increase traffic congestion and air pollution.

Heated emotions in the crowded council chamber threatened to boil over on several occasions as the council considered the project that would move the north airfield 260 feet closer to residents in Councilman Bill Rosendahl’s district.

“There will be a lawsuit,” Rosendahl said after the 10-3 vote.

Also casting dissenting votes were Councilmen Eric Garcetti and Dennis Zine, who are running for mayor and city attorney, respectively, in the May 21 election.

Airport officials said the project would increase safety, create jobs and accommodate jumbo jets.

Opponents were skeptical of airport officials’ claim that the project would make the north runways safer, saying it is a ploy to approve a project that would only serve to draw more traffic to Los Angeles International Airport at the expense of a regional approach to managing the city’s various airports.

Los Angeles owns Ontario International Airport, which has seen a sharp decline in flights, and Van Nuys Airport. The city of Ontario has sued Los Angeles, saying the Ontario airport has been mismanaged by the city.

Rosendahl took aim at Los Angeles World Airport’s executive director, Gina Marie Lindsey, saying she does not understand the needs of the region.

“Gina Marie, this is not Seattle. This is Southern California,” he said.

Lindsey previously managed the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

“Los Angeles World Airports and the mayor remain committed to regionalization,” Lindsey assured the council, but LAX “would still need to have one airfield at LAX that can safely and efficiently handle” larger, more modern airplanes.

“That is the question we have today,” she said.

The current north airfield was built in the 1960s, when airplanes were half the size they are today, necessitating a “non-standard” process that often results in delays, according to the project’s program director, Diego Alvarez.

Airport officials have conceded the runway is already safe, but say it would be made safer under their recommended plan.

Lindsey, speaking at a city Planning Commission meeting in February, said there is a race among airports to attract international flights. LAX is “still dominantly domestic traffic, but we have a growing international sector,” she told the commission.

By putting a taxi lane between the northern airfield’s two runways, such large aircraft as Airbus 380s that are now restricted to southern runways could be accommodated, airport officials said at the February meeting.

The environmental findings approved today set the stage for the widening of the north airfield at LAX, as well as the demolition of Terminals 1, 2 and 3; construction of a new ground transportation center at Manchester Square near Century Boulevard and the San Diego (405) Freeway; a new automated people mover that would connect passengers between the ground transportation center and the terminals; and road improvements.

The City Council also approved an amendment to have airport officials come back with a plan to promote regionalism among the airports, and voted to deny an appeal from one of the project’s most dedicated community critics, the Alliance For a Regional Solution to Airport Congestion.

Union groups were well-represented on both sides of the debate today.

Opponents of the project faced accusations of “NIMBY-ism” from Maria Elena Durazo, executive-secretary of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, who spoke in support of the project.

“This airport belongs to everyone in Los Angeles,” she said. “It does not belong to a particular part of Los Angeles.”

Meanwhile, the community groups have the backing of Service Employees International Union-United Service Workers West, whose secretary-treasurer, David Huerta, said in a statement that residents do support modernization, just not the runway widening.

“This deserves full consideration, not an 11th-hour vote with a lame duck City Council,” he said in urging the panel to delay its vote, to no avail.

“Coordinate with stakeholders, don’t bulldoze them,” he said.

Huerta’s union and several community groups, including the Alliance For a Regional Solution to Airport Congestion, have threatened to sue the city over the project. They have scheduled a town hall on May 4 to talk about the impacts of the project.

Councilman-elect Mike Bonin, Rosendahl’s chief of staff who is taking over his boss’ position in July, defended the community groups against claims of NIMBYism.

“This is not a contest between progress and constituents who don’t want to sacrifice something for the good of the city,” he said.

Bonin said residents who oppose the widening of the north airfield do support other parts of the project, which is projected to increase passengers at LAX by 21 percent.

“I dare you to find a project in your district where any of your constituents are supporting 21 percent growth of something, where you would allow them to be called NIMBYs,” he said.

Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Los Angeles, also appeared today to oppose the north airfield widening.

The project, which has been in the works since 2006, still needs the approval of the Federal Aviation Administration and the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.

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