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LAX Plan: What's the Rush?

September 12, 2003

The deceptively bureaucratic-looking motion on today's City Council agenda does not commit the council in any way on Mayor James K. Hahn's $9-billion modernization plan for Los Angeles International Airport. But it would block his effort to speed the plan through, sending the right message to the mayor to slow down and get the remodeling right.

Last week the city Airport Commission, whose members Hahn appoints, voted to hire a consultant to begin nailing down details of the airport plan, such as determining the exact route and elevation of a proposed people-mover. Just one problem: The plan has yet to be approved by the council or the Federal Aviation Administration.

Getting a jump on the design minutiae is not that unusual for such a big public works project, as long as there is general agreement that it will win approval. In this case, that's far from clear.

Former Mayor Richard Riordan's $12-billion expansion plan stalled three years ago, fought to a standstill by airport neighbors. When he ran for mayor, Hahn, eager for this block of votes, signed a pledge to hold LAX to no more than the 78.9 million passengers a year that planners say the aging airport could accommodate now. (About 56 million used LAX in 2002, down from 67 million in 2000, the peak year before the 2001 terrorist attacks sent air travel into a tailspin.)

After the Sept. 11 hijackings, Hahn called for reconfiguring LAX to make it more secure. Who could argue with that? Plenty of people, it turned out, once the actual plan was unveiled this summer.

What was expected to be a scaled-back remodel had morphed into one of the most expensive public works projects in the country. And the $9-billion price tag that Hahn cites does not, according to a Times analysis, take into account numerous costs, such as moving 6,000 residents out of a Manchester Square neighborhood intended for a remote passenger check-in center. That huge and probably still growing price would cover a plan that accommodates no more passengers than the current design and therefore does not increase the airport's contribution to the region's economy.

Some of the critics of the Riordan plan see Hahn's as a stealth expansion. Those who take the mayor at his word wonder why his plan costs so much if it doesn't add capacity. There is not even consensus on whether its security measures -- the plan's selling point -- reflect the best approach.

Hahn and Airport Commission President Ted Stein claim that the design consultant they want to hire at $1 million a month would answer these questions. But shouldn't LAX's old consulting firm, to which the city has already paid more than $100 million for planning, be able to do that? Better yet, the mayor should stop long enough to really listen to the public discussion still underway. Before approving the blueprints, Hahn needs much better consensus on security, of course, but also on cost and capacity in this post-9/11 world.

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