With prodding from Mayor James K. Hahn, the city agency that operates Los Angeles International Airport announced Tuesday that it will extend the public comment period on its controversial $12-billion expansion plan and schedule additional public hearings.
The move is an olive branch from the mayor to neighborhoods near the airport and to other Southern California cities that say they prefer that a projected doubling of passengers in the area by 2025 be distributed among a dozen regional airports.
"This is an important first step," said Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, whose district includes areas near the airport. "Up until now, the pro-expansion forces have tried to write off those of us who believe there's a better way to do it."
The extension of the comment period also signals Hahn's intention to mend a rift between the city and Los Angeles County, which sued airport operators earlier this month, claiming the current comment period violates state and federal environmental laws.
Hahn sent a letter to the airport's executive director on Tuesday requesting a 60-day extension of the current 180-day public comment period and asking the airport operator to schedule at least six additional public hearings throughout Southern California.
"I'm well aware that Los Angeles World Airports and the Federal Aviation Administration followed my recommendation to provide an unprecedented 180-day public comment period for the proposed Los Angeles International Airport master plan and related draft environmental impact report," Hahn wrote. "Now, however, I feel the public interest would be served by scheduling additional public hearings in various parts of the city and the region."
The current public comment period is scheduled to end July 25. With the extension, the response period will end Sept. 24. The Federal Aviation Administration, which is required by law to conduct hearings with the airport agency, concurred with the decision.
Additional hearings will be held in the San Fernando Valley, Los Angeles' Eastside, the harbor area, the Fairfax/Mid-Wilshire area, Ontario and Palmdale, the airport agency said. The agency expects to announce locations and dates of the hearings in the next two weeks.
Airport officials said they are comfortable with holding additional hearings. They said the sessions will give them the chance to better make their case: that the LAX master plan already recognizes the need for spreading airline service across the region. The plan allocates just 20% of passenger growth to LAX, they said.
"Our master plan is really wedded upon a regional allocation of aviation demand," said Lydia H. Kennard, executive director of Los Angeles World Airports, the city agency that operates LAX and three other regional airports. "We're very happy this new administration is interested in getting a broader perspective within the region."
The letter, which Hahn addressed to Kennard, is the mayor's first public action on the 12,000-page master plan and its accompanying environmental studies.
Both expansion foes and allies have been anxiously awaiting some sign from the mayor about where he stands on the issue. Hahn is expected to announce his appointments to the seven-member airport commission this week--a move that's likely to provide some clues about his position.
The mayor also has yet to indicate whether he will follow through on an anti-expansion pledge that he and other candidates signed during the campaign. Expansion opponents said they expect him to say he will abide by his pledge.
"We're grateful for additional time to respond to the master plan and the environmental studies," said El Segundo Mayor Mike Gordon, who has led the charge against the master plan. "But our focus is with the mayor's pledge to stop the master plan altogether."
The extension of the public comment period buys the new mayor some time to decide where he will come down on the beleaguered expansion plan--now five years and $60 million in the making.
"I'm not sure he had a lot of other choices, unless he was prepared to either scuttle the whole master plan or to move it forward," said Rich Lichtenstein, a veteran lobbyist and political consultant. "I don't think he's ready to make that decision. This gives his administration additional time to sort out what path they want to pursue with LAX expansion."