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An Immodest Proposal

September 05, 2004

Things are getting back to normal at Los Angeles International Airport after three slow years. A double-digit increase in passenger traffic this holiday weekend. A near-collision between a departing plane and an arriving jet last month. And -- ho, hum -- plans to modernize the terminals and reconfigure the runways are stuck in the same holding pattern they've been in for a decade. Yep, business as usual.

As the aging airport wraps up its busiest summer since the 2001 terrorist attacks, an obscure county commission tossed the latest wrench into the planning process. It ruled late last month that Mayor James K. Hahn's proposed $9-billion overhaul -- only a portion of which is seriously under consideration at this point, but that's another story -- doesn't conform to a land-use plan that is itself outdated. Translation: County supervisors, prodded by anti-growth constituents, want more say, or at least another delay.

The city has spent almost 10 years and $130 million trying to come up with a way to improve LAX, and the cap-LAX crowd continues to fight moving a runway a mere 50 feet. So maybe it's time to think more boldly. Why not start from scratch and build a modern, state-of-the-art, secure airport in the one place that wants one? Palmdale.

Planners have long counted an airport in the northern L.A. County city as part of a regional airport system that eventually would handle 4 million passengers. But why not think even bigger?

Denver shut its old airport in 1995 and opened a brand new one, the largest in the country, about 30 miles from its downtown. The cost overruns and a baggage-handling system that worked like a giant shredder drew jeers at first. But now that the kinks are worked out, Denver International is considered one of the best airports in the nation.

Hong Kong did it. With passengers able to see into windows of nearby apartments during takeoffs and landings, officials closed the old, landlocked airport, built an island out of fill, plunked an airport on it and ran trains, buses, expressways, tunnels, bridges and ferries to it. The new Hong Kong International opened in 1998. Designed to handle up to 87 million passengers a year, it is ranked by industry experts and business travelers as the best in the world.

Los Angeles bought land in Palmdale years ago, and now it's a big, blank slate just waiting for the latest in modern, post-9/11 design. Best of all, the city of Palmdale actually wants an airport. Although Orange County residents voted against turning the old El Toro military base into a commercial airport and LAX's neighbors fought every expansion to a standstill, Palmdale counted the jobs and dollars an airport would bring.

OK, the Palmdale plan has a drawback or two. It's about 60 miles from downtown Los Angeles -- more than twice as far as the Denver and Hong Kong airports from their city centers -- and the Antelope Valley Freeway can't handle existing commuters. But bring-it-on Palmdale has spent half a million dollars trying to sell itself as a stop on the state's futuristic San Diego-to-San Francisco high-speed train, should it ever get built. Angelenos, of course, would howl at having to trek so far to catch a flight. Let them. They're the ones no one hears from when everyone's trying to block modernization of LAX.

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