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Security Eclipses Capacity in Plan for LAX

Mayor Hahn's $9-billion proposal includes major changes in getting to and through the airport but does little to allow for an increase in passengers.

July 10, 2003|Jennifer Oldham and Patrick McGreevy | Times Staff Writers

Local noise restrictions prohibit John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana and Long Beach Airport from accepting significantly more flights. Burbank has been unable to expand because of intense community opposition. And Ontario International Airport, where residents are willing to accept more airplanes, has been unable to sustain international flights.

Concerned about the long-term effect of those restrictions, Hahn asked federal officials earlier this year to allow the city to operate a commercial airport at the former El Toro Marine base in Orange County.

"I'm astonished that people are so short-sighted and they lack so much vision that they don't see how important an airport can be in south Orange County," Hahn said Wednesday.

"If you say LAX is only going to handle 78 million annual passengers, this requires the growth to be handled somewhere else. Look at the rest of the country. If you go to New York City, you have the option of flying out of JFK or La Guardia or Newark, and in Washington you can use National, Baltimore or Dulles."

The Department of Transportation has yet to respond to the mayor's proposal, although the plan has elicited a firestorm of protest from elected officials and residents in Orange County, who voted overwhelmingly last year to turn the old Marine base into a park and other uses.

When Hahn first released an outline of his LAX plan last summer, it didn't include details about where passengers and baggage would be screened.

The mayor's assertion that his plan would make travelers more secure came under increasing scrutiny recently when Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice) commissioned a report from the Rand Corp.

The report found that the mayor's plan would make passengers and airline workers more vulnerable to car bombings or chemical or biological weapons attacks by consolidating travelers at a facility near the San Diego Freeway. Today, passengers check in at one of nine terminals.

In response, the city's Airport Commission asked a San Diego-based private security consulting firm to study the mayor's proposal.

The firm found that the modernization plan is "overwhelmingly a better plan for LAX" than the current facility, and provides "a much higher degree of safety and security" than currently exists.

The study by Science Applications International Corp. said Hahn's plan would disperse people and create "concentric rings" of security, through which passengers would pass on their way to terminals.

Security also would be enhanced at the check-in center itself by plainclothes officers and bomb-sniffing dogs, by facial recognition technology and by futuristic devices that would check passengers for weapons and explosives as they made their way to a people mover, said Airport Commission President Ted Stein. He said many of these systems are not yet on the market.

Cost-Effectiveness

Harman was not appeased by the security study.

"On first reading, it does not appear that the mayor has made changes ... that address these concerns or respond to the recommendations the [Rand] report made for cost-effective security improvements," she said.

Jack Riley, the director of Rand's public safety and justice program, said that despite the Science Applications International Corp. report, he still believes "security tweaks and improvements" could be made at LAX for substantially less than $9 billion.

Hahn said the new plan, by providing more parking away from the airport, avoids the problem faced by the city after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when it had to close the central parking garages, which significantly hindered airport operations.

"This design hardens the target at LAX and makes it a much safer alternative than any other alternative being discussed," Hahn said, adding that passengers "are not being dispersed right now. They are all coming into the airport off of Century and Sepulveda [boulevards] so everybody is coming through one choke point right now into the airport."

Although an environmental impact report released Wednesday found that the renovation would create "significant unavoidable" negative impacts on traffic, noise and pollution, Hahn's plan seeks to avoid some of the pitfalls of Riordan's expansion proposals, including creation of a ring road that goes through Westchester, Hahn said.

The mayor's proposal, known as Alternative D, joins three controversial expansion plans devised by his predecessor. Hahn scrapped those plans after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in favor of his scaled-down version.

Asked about reports that his version of modernization would not provide any additional economic growth in the long term, Hahn acknowledged that, but said his proposal would protect the existing role that the airport plays in Southern California's economy.

Hahn said residents and business leaders will have a chance to weigh in on the plan during nine public hearings to be held Aug. 11 to 23. Others called on the mayor to extend the public input period.

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