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Panels Vote to Revamp LAX

The city's airport and planning commissions unanimously back modernization plan.

June 15, 2004|Jennifer Oldham | Times Staff Writer

Airport and planning commissioners voted unanimously Monday to approve a scaled-back version of Mayor James K. Hahn's $9-billion plan for modernizing Los Angeles International Airport that postpones its most controversial elements, including a new passenger check-in facility

The commissioners took the long-awaited vote, the first critical step in an approval process that could take the rest of the year, after two hours of public testimony followed by an hourlong discussion of the technical details.

"It's truly amazing when you stop to think about how much time and effort went into this," Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski said. "There's got to be a century's worth of work."

However, a number of key questions remain, including how to make LAX more secure; whether the time-consuming planning process would have to be restarted; and whether portions of the mayor's plan would be built at all.

Monday's vote came after Hahn agreed last week to support Miscikowski's proposal to split his ambitious makeover into two phases in a bid to salvage the 15 years and $126 million the city has spent on a solution to remodel LAX. The airport had its last face lift before the 1984 Olympics.

In separate actions, four airport and seven planning commissioners voted to approve Hahn's proposal and gave the go-ahead to numerous planning documents required to implement his vision. Miscikowski's proposal, contained in a document known as a "specific plan," was also approved.

Miscikowski's specific plan puts the most popular projects in a first phase that would get what she calls the "green light." These include an elevated tram, a consolidated rental-car facility, a plan to relocate runways on the airport's south side and a transportation center to link the light-rail Green Line with the tram.

More controversial elements, including the centerpiece of Hahn's plan -- a remote check-in facility near the San Diego Freeway -- and the demolition of three terminals on the airport's north side would be considered in a second phase that would require further analysis. An oversight panel, airport commissioners and the City Council would review those projects after additional security, noise, traffic and air pollution studies. City Council approval of this approach isn't a slam dunk. Miscikowski still faces criticism from airport neighbors who contend that her proposal may not provide the safeguards she promises because future City Councils could vote to amend the document.

Councilman Bernard C. Parks, who represents areas east of LAX, announced his own plan Monday to remodel the airport, saying he opposes Hahn's plan because it costs too much and its environmental studies rely on outdated material.

Parks' plan largely mirrors projects that would be built in the first phase of Miscikowski's plan, except for the elevated tram. It would, however, require the city to start the planning process over, which could take months, if not years. He also said he was concerned that the councilwoman's specific plan could be easily amended to speed up construction of the projects in the second phase.

"I don't think anyone should be put in a position of saying we must go forward because we've spent X number of years and X number of dollars, but we don't have the best plan," said Parks, who is exploring a run for mayor. "A few more months and a few more dollars to get the best plan is in everyone's best interests."

Former El Segundo Mayor Mike Gordon said Monday that he has collected more than 10,000 signatures on a petition calling for city officials to revise Hahn's plan to restrain growth at the airport.

The plan approved by the airport and planning commissions travels next to the Los Angeles County Airport Land Use Commission, which has 60 days to review the package. It is expected to head to the City Council and the Federal Aviation Administration for review later this year.

Commissioners said the modernization plan was much needed and would mitigate problems with traffic and air pollution experienced by surrounding communities, as well as provide jobs.

"LAX needs modernization immediately for safety and security and economic reasons," said Airport Commissioner Miguel Contreras, who is also a labor leader.

Hahn, who missed the first joint hearing between the two commissions last month, told the commissioners at the meeting that the city must move promptly to repair LAX to retain its prominence as the region's economic engine.

"We need to modernize LAX now," Hahn said. "Your approval of my plan will bring us a huge step forward in our goal of upgrading the airport for the first time in more than 20 years."

Hahn scrapped an expansion proposed by his predecessor, Mayor Richard Riordan, and introduced his plan in the weeks following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He pledged to increase security at LAX and limit its growth to 78 million annual passengers. The airport is designed to handle 40 million travelers annually and served 56 million last year.

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