HONG KONG — Nearing the end of his two-week trip to Asia, Mayor Richard Riordan addressed an enthusiastic group of Western business leaders Wednesday, using his speech to deliver his strongest endorsement yet of Los Angeles International Airport's costly proposed expansion.
"We're expanding--we're not just waiting--to be ready for the 21st century," Riordan said during a speech billed as the most important of his trip. "We have to be ready to handle the increased demand."
His remarks were meant to signal the city's readiness for foreign trade, but they also demonstrated the mayor's growing resolve in the potentially bitter local fight over airport expansion. According to Riordan, increasing the capacity of LAX is both a local and national imperative.
Airports elsewhere in Southern California--such as El Toro, Ontario and Palmdale--will grow, he said, but "even with all the pieces put together, the only way we can meet the demand is to about double the capacity at LAX."
That will mean expanding capacity from 60 million passengers a year to 100 million. It also will require building 4 million square feet of cargo space and developing a comprehensive plan for handling traffic and noise to minimize damage and discomfort to nearby residents.
Some opposition already exists in those communities. The airport master plan is nearing completion, and officials say they expect to unveil a final proposal sometime this year. But even without seeing the document, neighbors are concerned about increased street traffic and noise and pollution from additional flights.
What's more, the total cost of the project is estimated at $8 billion to $12 billion, which would make LAX's expansion by far the most expensive public works project in Los Angeles' history. The cost would be shared by the federal and local governments, as well as by the airlines, which are tentatively supporting the expansion but remain wary of the huge potential cost and uncertainties surrounding the idea--especially given the $4-billion range in estimates of the construction costs.
Their caution has been amplified by concern that Riordan has not thus far taken a more active role in pushing for the project, while its opponents--such as Councilwoman Ruth Galanter--have been gathering their forces. Galanter supports increasing air traffic to the region, which would bring Southern California jobs and continue the area's economic expansion. But she believes environmental and community concerns mean that the additional airline traffic should be routed to Palmdale or elsewhere, not to LAX.
For the most part, Riordan administration officials have tolerated Galanter's criticisms and treated them as a minor nuisance, not a subject for fierce debate.
The mayor's speech Wednesday signaled a change in approach. Until now, Riordan has supported expansion but generally has let airport officials play the lead role in advocating it. On Wednesday, he decisively donned that mantle himself.
"The issue is the future of the economies not just of Los Angeles, but of the nation," said Riordan, speaking with uncommon force.
Dan Garcia, a member of the city's Airport Commission and part of the delegation visiting Hong Kong, said after Riordan's speech that the new emphasis on airport expansion was vital.
"There is no single project more important for the future of the region than the expansion of LAX," he said. "This is not some shopping center. . . . This is a major part of L.A.'s future."
Though brief, Riordan's stay in Hong Kong focused largely on airport matters. He was joined for Wednesday's luncheon speech by a Bechtel executive overseeing the development of a new airport on the outskirts of Hong Kong. The mayor and two of LAX's top officials, director Jack Driscoll and deputy director Phil Depoian, visited that massive, state-of-the art facility, which is expected to open this summer.
Driscoll called it "either the seventh or eighth or ninth wonder of the world, depending on how you count."
He and Depoian have been meeting with airport executives throughout Asia. In those meetings, Driscoll said, executives have clearly indicated their desire to see LAX grow and to bring more business to Southern California.
For Riordan, Wednesday's speech came near the end of a complicated, 16-day Asian tour. It was delivered to the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, with more than 120 local business leaders and others in attendance. Afterward, local and regional journalists pressed Riordan for more details about his trip to Asia, particularly his meeting earlier in the week with Chinese President Jiang Zemin.
That meeting has attracted huge notice here. It was the lead story in China's only English-speaking daily, and pictures of the two leaders have appeared regularly on television throughout Asia. One result is that Riordan, until this week known only slightly in Asia, suddenly is recognized not only by dignitaries, but also by passersby on streets from Beijing to Hong Kong.