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Costs Soar for LAX Safety

Price tag for security upgrades increases by $132 million, and work is far behind schedule. Evolving requirements, bureaucracy are cited.

September 10, 2004|Jennifer Oldham | Times Staff Writer

Three years after the skyjackings of Sept. 11, major security overhauls at Los Angeles International Airport are experiencing long delays and are expected to cost at least $132 million more than first estimated.

Cost estimates for the most ambitious of these projects, the addition of truck-sized explosives-detection machines to baggage systems at LAX and Ontario International Airport, alone exceed initial estimates by $110 million.

The costs for several other projects announced by Mayor James K. Hahn in 2002, including upgrading eight miles of fencing and installing 1,200 closed-circuit television cameras, also are rising. Both projects are past their initial completion dates.

Fortifying LAX, which is considered the state's No. 1 terrorist target and has been singled out by Al Qaeda, became a top priority for local and federal officials in the months after the terrorist attacks.

But airport officials attribute the delays and cost increases to evolving federal security requirements and bureaucracy that slows public works projects to a snail's pace. They emphasize that the projects ultimately will set the standard in the airport industry for fencing, baggage and video-monitoring systems.

"We are designing projects while technology is evolving and [Transportation Security Administration] procedures are evolving," said Kim Day, interim executive director of the city's airport agency. "It's like we're running after a pickup truck and trying to hop in."

In the rush to put unprecedented security measures in place at LAX and Ontario International Airport, federal officials miscalculated how much room new baggage systems would need and how much new security equipment was necessary, airport officials said.

"We know we rushed with the TSA to get the design and cost of this system," Day told the Airport Commission this week. "We took a calculated risk to go fast and furious, and we knew that it wasn't going to be perfect."

A TSA contractor who did the initial design for baggage systems at LAX and Ontario mistakenly assumed that Ontario had one terminal -- it has two -- and miscalculated the space requirements at LAX.

Because of that, the TSA's original estimates for both systems were 32% too low, records show. LAX's system was expected to cost $313 million but is now projected at $413 million. Ontario's budget, originally set at $28 million, has risen to $37.1 million.

The federal agency had pledged to pay 75% of the original estimated costs of both baggage systems. But it was unclear if it would pay three-quarters of the new costs.

The TSA is working with the airport agency to redesign the systems and bring the costs down, said Nico Melendez, a TSA spokesman. The key to doing that, officials said, is increasing the number of bags that detection machines can scan per hour, which would reduce the number of machines and the amount of space necessary.

Airport officials are also working to narrow the gap between the initial and current estimates, said Paul Haney, an airport spokesman.

The baggage system is by far the largest security-related project at LAX since the terrorist attacks. Other measures are also competing for funding from the airport agency's budget, which is separate from the city's general fund and relies on landing fees and rents from the airlines and concession and parking revenue.

One such project is the new fencing. When Hahn announced that project in July 2002, he said the first phase would be finished by Christmas 2003. That phase, improving four miles of fence on the airport's northwest perimeter, now is scheduled for completion next summer.

The cost estimate for the entire fencing project is $57 million. It will include closed-circuit TV cameras, better lighting and a concrete barrier to prevent vehicles from crashing through the fence.

The delay can be attributed in large part to discussions between the airport agency and the TSA about how to include state-of-the-art motion-detection technology in the fence, Day said. After talks went on for a year without a resolution, she said, airport officials decided to proceed with construction without that detail worked out.

Another project announced in August 2002 was the installation of scores of new security cameras in terminal lobbies, over airport curbs and on the airfield. Early cost estimates came in at $20 million. The project was scheduled to be completed late this year.

Current estimates for those cameras are now $42 million, and the new completion date is summer 2006. A new camera system is already in place in the Tom Bradley International Terminal.

The price tag for the project increased after federal officials asked the airport agency to install more cameras throughout the airport, Day said.

City officials emphasize that security at Los Angeles' airports already meets federal standards and is much tighter today than before 9/11.

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