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Hahn's LAX Plan Finally Lands for First Votes

June 14, 2004|Jennifer Oldham and Noam N. Levey | Times Staff Writers

With the first votes on the long-delayed modernization of Los Angeles International Airport expected tonight, Mayor James K. Hahn has been celebrating what he called a "tremendous achievement."

But though Hahn has succeeded in pushing an airport overhaul further than his predecessors, the plan before airport and planning commissioners leaves unsettled many crucial questions, including whether it would make the airport more secure.

Many involved in the debate say the uncertainty is a consequence of the way Hahn has presided over the city's largest public works project since he introduced his proposal in the weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"It's been a bad process and a bad result," said Councilman Jack Weiss, who has been pushing the mayor for months to take a closer look at the security issue.

For more than two years, Hahn refused to negotiate with critics of his controversial $9-billion plan. He did not attend numerous meetings with community leaders.

For the campaign to win public support, he entrusted two lieutenants whose brusque manner alienated key interest groups and other civic leaders. And he ignored repeated warnings from allies that he would have to compromise.

Not until he was faced with the imminent collapse of his plan did Hahn give in.

Under an agreement reached last week with Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski, who represents the airport area, Hahn agreed to defer consideration of a remote check-in facility at Manchester Square that is the centerpiece of his plan. Subject to further analysis, it may never be built.

The more popular projects, including a new rental car complex and a tram connecting terminals and other airport facilities, would be built first.

Tonight, airport and planning commissioners will vote separately on the mayor's plan. Both bodies will be asked to approve the proposal, and each will consider various planning documents. Whatever action the commissioners take, the final decisions rest with the City Council and, ultimately, the Federal Aviation Administration. The votes will be the first time any public agency has reviewed a modernization plan for LAX in 23 years.

Hahn last week hailed that progress as historic.

"This thing has gone further than any previous incarnation of airport modernization," the mayor said. "That point seems to be missed by a lot of people who seem to think that it is stalled, or hasn't gone anywhere, or is dead in the water."

But many civic and business leaders said the LAX modernization, 15 years and $126 million in the making, could be much further along had Hahn not stonewalled negotiations for more than two years.

Because the compromise came at the 11th hour, key questions remain.

Significant changes to Hahn's proposal could force the city to redo multimillion-dollar noise, air pollution and traffic studies if opponents successfully sue or the Federal Aviation Administration rejects the compromise plan.

And city leaders are still waiting for the results of a comprehensive analysis of the best way to protect the world's fifth-busiest airport from a terrorist attack.

Critics say some of this uncertainty could have been avoided.

"It would have been better to include us in the process much earlier," said Kelley Brown, a veteran airline consultant who represents carriers at LAX.

In the weeks and months after the terrorist attacks, Hahn promised vigorous leadership to deliver an airport designed to better protect travelers.

"The tragic events of Sept. 11 showed us our nation's aviation system continues to be a vulnerable target," Hahn told an October 2001 hearing on the airport's modernization. "Those events have caused me to focus my attention first and foremost on the changes that must be undertaken immediately to ensure safe and secure operations at LAX."

But by the time Hahn unveiled his LAX plan nine months later, there were already signs that his attention was not so focused.

The mayor made no mention of it in his first two State of the City addresses.

Throughout 2002 and 2003, he left the task of selling his LAX plan to others. Of 72 airport briefings to community leaders, business groups and elected officials between June 11, 2002, and March 7, 2003, Hahn was scheduled to speak at only three.

Miscikowski said the mayor discussed the issue with her on only a few occasions.

"I can count them on one hand," she said.

The mayor left most of the communication to Airport Commission President Ted Stein, a Valley developer and lawyer known for his aggressive style, and Deputy Mayor Troy Edwards, a former campaign worker with no experience in aviation policy.

They were poor choices, said many community and business leaders who tried to work with the mayor's office on the modernization plan.

Stein and Edwards held more than 100 meetings with community leaders, business groups and airlines, but they never appeared open to altering the plan, according to interviews with more than a dozen people involved.

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