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Details Sketchy in Hahn's LAX Modernization Plan

Aviation: Proposal, which favors security over expansion, includes off-site check-in, new terminals and a revised runway configuration.

June 23, 2002|JENNIFER OLDHAM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Eight years, $103 million in expenditures and 33 alternatives later, city officials are still without a definitive plan to modernize aging Los Angeles International Airport.

What began in the mid-1990s as an ambitious vision--increase the airport's capacity to 98 million passengers a year by adding new runways and terminals--is now a significantly scaled-back proposal that would allow little growth, yet still cost billions.

Exactly how much Mayor James K. Hahn's modernization plan would cost is one of many outstanding questions about his fledgling proposal, which favors security and safety over expansion.

Most of the $103 million spent overall has gone in contracts awarded during Mayor Richard Riordan's administration for plans that have since been abandoned, according to records obtained by The Times.

Since Hahn took office last year, the city agency that operates LAX has spent about $10 million studying how to improve the world's third busiest airport. That is $830,000 a month, almost the same pace as the Riordan administration's spending. Experts say the planning costs will increase as the mayor pursues his vision, conceived on the back of an envelope and first outlined several weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Some details have come into focus. Hahn hasn't yet formally released his proposal. But in briefings with airport-area residents and business leaders, his staff has described a dramatically different look at the 42-year-old facility.

Most vehicular traffic would disappear from the airport's horseshoe-shaped roadway, rerouted to a remote check-in facility near the San Diego Freeway. A people mover would take passengers to the airport.

Terminals 1, 2 and 3 would be demolished for a new runway configuration and new terminals would be built where the central parking structures are now.

Over the years, the plan to expand LAX has shifted from construction of two runways into Santa Monica Bay to use of the Hawthorne Municipal Airport for commuter airline traffic and then to Riordan's vision--addition of a large terminal on the airport's western end, but no new runways.

Community and business leaders are anxiously awaiting a detailed version of the most recent proposal, known by Hahn's staff as the "fifth alternative." The mayor's office has said repeatedly that the document would be ready soon, but has not elaborated.

Even after a mayor announces a definitive plan, it typically takes at least three years for environmental reports to be completed and approved by federal officials, according to a Federal Aviation Administration study of modernization timelines at major U.S. airports.

The mayor's office says it can reduce this delay by adding the fifth alternative to Riordan's master plan and using parts of a 12,000-page environmental report issued with that plan in January 2001.

Because the LAX modernization plan has changed so many times, pre-planning costs here are significantly higher than amounts spent to study expansion at other major airports. Officials spent $26.6 million before beginning construction on the $3-billion Denver International Airport in 1990.

Efforts to improve Seattle-Tacoma International Airport ran about $43.8 million in the planning phase on a $3-billion project--including $30 million in legal fees stemming from a fight over a third runway. Norfolk International Airport in Virginia plans to spend $100 million on both planning and construction costs for a new runway.

But it's difficult to compare plans to modernize LAX with those for other facilities, experts say, because no other airport improvement project approaches the scope that city officials have proposed for LAX. Complex environmental studies required under California law also add significant costs, said Richard Marchi, senior vice president of technical and environmental affairs for Airports Council International, an airports trade group.

"The Los Angeles undertaking was at a scale that's much larger than most airports when they do a master plan," Marchi said. "Most airports talk about adding a terminal or a runway, not about reconfiguring airport boundaries and changing the layout of the facility."

Hahn's proposal has graduated from the back of an envelope to a piece of paper stuffed in the pocket of the Airport Commission president, Ted Stein.

Stein has used the rumpled document at meetings recently to brief business and community leaders.

City officials say they decided to hold the briefings using just an outline so they could incorporate the response in the final document.

"What we need here is a consensus to move forward with a multibillion-dollar project," said Deputy Mayor Matt Middlebrook.

But therein lies a dilemma for the mayor's office: Many said their first impressions of Hahn's plan had been clouded by its lack of detail.

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