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Airport to Pay Its Share of Road Improvements : Development: The action is welcomed in City Hall, but it snarls a revision of the ordinance that determines how fees are assessed on all projects.


An agreement by Los Angeles International Airport officials to pay for street improvements on the Westside was hailed by city officials as a major breakthrough in efforts to prevent gridlock in the area.

The city's Airport Commission recently agreed that LAX should be subject to a city ordinance that charges developers from Santa Monica to El Segundo for the traffic their projects put on the road.

While welcoming the airport's offer to pay its share of regional transportation improvements, however, officials are still struggling to rewrite the same ordinance to ensure that developers also pay enough for new streets, bridges and traffic signals.

In its July 27 action, the Airport Commission agreed that LAX should be subject to the Coastal Transportation Corridor Specific Plan, a 1985 city law that charges developers a trip fee for each car their developments put on the street.

The ordinance was hailed as a model for preventing further snarls on Westside streets, but it has fallen far short of raising an anticipated $235 million to pay for transportation improvements. The law has produced a little more than $7 million.

The ordinance charges builders about $2,300 for each car that their projects put on the street during the peak afternoon commute hour. But city officials agreed that the fee was too low to make all the improvements necessary in the busy Coastal Corridor and that little money had accumulated because the law gives developers 20 years to pay.

Another major drawback cited by critics was that the law did not assess fees on LAX, the 46-million-passenger-a-year facility that is the largest traffic producer in the region.

Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, who represents the airport area, had long pushed for the airport to help pay to make transportation improvements. The effort gained momentum this year when the City Council asked the semiautonomous Department of Airports to research ways that it could help pay for city programs. A resulting consultant's report recommended that LAX should be subject to the traffic ordinance.

The Airport Commission embraced the idea last month.

"That's the good news," said Galanter, noting that the airport's exemption from the transportation ordinance "always stuck in everyone's craw. We are all very grateful to have them included. It's only fair."

Clifton Moore, executive director of the city Department of Airports, said LAX welcomed the opportunity to help diminish its impact on neighboring communities.

"There has been this constant concern of trying to develop a (connection) between the airport and the rest of the community," Moore said. "This seemed to be one method that was legally defensible and that would provide revenue."

Just how the airport will be charged for street improvements, and how much it will have to pay, remain unclear.

The transportation ordinance charges a fee for new construction, based on the amount of traffic that developments put on the street. But city officials said LAX could bring in substantially more passengers without building a single new terminal. They are looking for other ways of charging the airport--perhaps with a $1 surcharge on fees at new airport parking lots.

Airport commissioners, however, said they were unsure how parking charges would work and whether it would be fair to apply them to new lots but not old ones. They declined to recommend any particular formula for assessing transportation charges.

"It was so vague that we said, 'Let's just hold on,' " said Robert Chick, president of the Airport Commission.

A series of other improvements to the transportation ordinance--including raising the trip fee to $5,690 and shortening the time developers have to pay--have been inching through the city bureaucracy for more than a year.

But it appeared last week that the airport's willingness to submit to transportation charges might actually postpone those other amendments.

Because of the addition of the airport, the law had to be returned Thursday to the Planning Commission for further review.

Theodore Stein Jr., president of the commission, used the opportunity to call into question the essential fairness of the entire ordinance. Stein argued that developers were already required to widen streets and install traffic signals immediately around their projects and that he was concerned that they would be overcharged for larger regional traffic improvements.

"I want to know the constitutional basis that we have to charge people for traffic that does not come from their projects," Stein asked.

Allyn Rifkin, principal engineer with the Department of Transportation, said he is distressed that the Planning Commission would rehash issues discussed at length nearly two years ago, when the commission first reviewed the ordinance.

Galanter said she is also concerned.

"The good news is the airport has agreed to come within the law and everyone has agreed they should," Galanter said. "But the bad news is that, by making those improvements, we seem to have sidelined all the other improvements.

"There was a set of amendments ready, to put five years of arguments behind us and, because we were going to put in one significant improvement by adding the airport, we have to delay the whole thing for two months. It's frustrating."

The Planning Commission is scheduled to take up the transportation ordinance, and the airport's contributions, on Sept. 17.

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