In proposing a $9-billion renovation of Los Angeles International Airport last week, Mayor James K. Hahn vowed that he would not suffer the same fate as his predecessor, Richard Riordan, who, starting in 1993, spent $90 million developing an LAX expansion plan, only to see it bog down in community opposition.
Hahn said his decision to effectively cap the number of passengers at LAX at 78.9 million a year should win over many people who opposed Riordan's plan, which aimed to accommodate as many as 98 million annual travelers.
"That's why we had active opposition to expansion plans and nothing was moving for 10 years," Hahn said. "We are moving forward now because we are doing something that is realistic."
But Hahn faces a host of potential obstacles that Riordan did not have to contend with, and observers say Hahn's plan is vulnerable at several points in the approval process, from the Los Angeles City Council to the Federal Aviation Administration.
Complicating matters, Hahn has proposed an ambitious schedule that calls for public hearings to wrap up by Aug. 23, for the Airport Commission to send the plan to the City Council in time for approval next May and for the FAA to give its final OK in October 2004 so that construction could begin before the end of next year.
Since Hahn detailed his plan last week, the city councilwoman, county supervisor and congresswoman who represent the LAX area all have expressed serious doubts about it, and all have called on the mayor to extend the public hearings beyond the 45 days he has proposed.
County Supervisor Don Knabe has asked the board to vote today to request that Hahn extend the public comment period to 90 days, so it would last beyond August.
"That is the height of the vacation period," said Knabe, who represents the airport area and was a strong opponent of Riordan's plan.
As a presidential appointee to the federal Homeland Security Senior Advisory Commission, Knabe could be an influential figure in the debate. He has testified against elements of Hahn's plan in the past, and worries that having all passengers go through a new central check-in center might pose a greater security risk because it would concentrate people in an area that could be targeted by terrorists.
Another sign of early trouble is that influential business groups that backed Riordan's expansion plan, including the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce and the Valley Industry and Commerce Assn., so far have balked at supporting the Hahn proposal.
"We think to spend that kind of money and not provide for future expansion of passenger and cargo service is not very forward thinking," said Fred Gaines, chairman of the Valley business group.
The first test of Hahn's plan will come Aug. 11 when the city Airport Commission is to begin a series of nine public hearings before deciding whether to recommend the plan to the City Council.
The hearings are expected to attract many opponents, including residents of Inglewood and South Los Angeles who live in the airport's flight path and fear that the plan would add to the noise and traffic in their neighborhoods.
"There is a great deal of concern to see the new terminal pushed farther east, which increases traffic, pollution and noise farther east and impacts those communities," said Councilman Bernard C. Parks, who said he had heard complaints from about 100 constituents during a recent briefing on the proposal.
Opposition has also been voiced by a coalition of airlines serving LAX that would have to pay for much of the project.
Carriers, including American Airlines and Delta Airlines, have submitted an opposition paper to council members, saying the shaky financial condition of the travel industry means it is not a good time to consider a $9-billion renovation that would result in questionable security benefits. However, Hahn has won support from some airlines, including Air China and EVA Airways.
With the Airport Commission appointed by the mayor and expected to pass his plan, the airlines have focused their lobbying effort on the City Council.
In interviews, many council members expressed concern about the cost of the project and the fact that it would not increase the economic output of the airport. Some questioned whether it would make LAX safer.
"If we are going to spend a lot of money to accomplish essentially what is going to be accomplished by not having any project, then we have to weigh the economic benefit of the project," said Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski, whose district includes the airport.
The council has the option of rejecting Hahn's plan and approving one of its own.