In the coming months, Southern Californians will hear more and more about a contentious and vitally important issue. It's the mammoth expansion project for Los Angeles International Airport, one that would transform what is already one of the nation's busiest and most crowded airfields into one capable of handling the lion's share of Pacific Rim traffic well into the next century.
On one side of the debate are Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan and his supporters. They view the expansion of LAX as a crucial part of a three-pronged approach that includes the successful completion of the Alameda high-speed-rail cargo corridor and the expansion of the Port of Los Angeles. Their ambitious goal is to turn Los Angeles into the nation's preeminent gateway for international trade and to guarantee its financial health for decades to come.
But the mega-airport vision that Riordan sold so successfully on his business trip through Asia has not resonated nearly so well back at home, and more salesmanship is required. To the mayor, the most important goals are the fruits of expansion: as many as 72,000 more jobs and $20 billion to $37 billion more going into the regional economy. Here, the mayor's barely concealed impatience with those who don't want the added noise and congestion can become his worst enemy.
"Unfortunately, there are those who would rather attempt to distract the public's attention from the real issue surrounding LAX expansion--global competitiveness. They are unable to grasp simple economic facts, and to them 'jobs' is just a four-letter word," the mayor has said. "It's boggling why anyone would focus their energy on denying Angelenos access to quality jobs."
Riordan will be in Westchester next week to tout the expansion. Undoubtedly, so will the expansion's most active opponent, City Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, who represents the LAX area. Again, the problem is the intractable stance taken by some of the antagonists. Galanter and supporters have come up with a pipe dream. It's a high-tech, high-speed and definitely high-cost rail project that would, among other things, connect each of the region's airports. It would supposedly allow Palmdale Airport the opportunity to grow enough to ease the need to expand LAX.
But just who in the federal or state government is going to buy into funding another rail project in Southern California? That's a particularly tough matter since it took so long to extend the Red Line subway the few blocks from Langer's Deli to the Wiltern Theatre.
This brings us to the recurring Southern California morass that swallows up reason whenever a bigger airport or a proposed one is discussed: Pick your position, hold fast and hope some other jurisdiction will get stuck with the bigger airport or the brand-new one. What's needed this time is a more evolved discussion in which county and city leaders work out a regional solution to the area's air traffic needs. That debate needs to begin now, and here are some of the facts.
California, like the rest of the nation, is experiencing huge increases in air travel and air cargo movement. Last year, for example, the equivalent of 620 million passengers boarded aircraft at U.S. terminals. The Federal Aviation Administration projects that figure to rise to nearly 900 million by 2005. It's estimated that the number of passengers per year at LAX will grow to 98 million by 2015. That would be an increase of 92% since 1994. Air cargo is projected to reach 4.2 million tons by 2015. That would be a 140% increase over 1994 figures.
California, a world player in many ways, has just two international airports of note, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Of equal significance is the fact that these are two of the nation's most land-deficient mega-airports, at 3,500 and 2,400 acres respectively. Orlando International, by comparison, encompasses 14,720 acres and still generates strident opposition to expansion within its perimeter.
Imagine the comparable absurdity of just two major shipping ports in California, rather than the substantial deep-water operations in Los Angeles/Long Beach, San Diego, Oakland and San Francisco. The debate over airport expansion would be relatively cordial if there were five airports that could share the load.