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Regional airport network falls flat

A panel resurrected by L.A. Mayor Villaraigosa makes little headway in developing alternatives to expansion at LAX.

September 06, 2007|David Zahniser | Times Staff Writer

When Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa scaled back an $11-billion plan for modernizing Los Angeles International Airport two years ago, he promised neighborhoods near LAX that he would embrace a different aviation strategy: sending air traffic to other airports across the region.

To reach that goal, Villaraigosa resurrected an obscure five-county panel on air travel that had disbanded in 2003 because of lack of interest.

But even as the mayor's appointees prepare a new plan for LAX, the Southern California Regional Airport Authority is once again having trouble getting off the ground.

Nearly a year after it reconvened, the authority has no defined mission. Its last meeting was six months ago. And even some of its most passionate supporters say the momentum has stalled.

"It's just going nowhere," said county Supervisor Don Knabe, whose district includes LAX. "It's really been at a snail's pace, this whole process, so obviously I'm disappointed."

Knabe is one of just four voting members on the revamped airport authority's board of directors. Some say the more accurate number is three, because Riverside County's representative stopped attending after the first meeting.

Either way, foes of airport expansion at LAX -- who largely embrace the idea of a regional airport network -- say the authority looks more irrelevant than ever.

"I don't even pay attention to it now, because literally the last I heard was that all they were doing was talking about organizing," said Westchester resident David Voss, a former airport commissioner under former Mayor James Hahn.

With its meetings in May, June and July canceled, the regional airport authority is shooting for Sept. 13 as its next session. That would be the agency's fourth since June 2006, when Villaraigosa announced that a reconstituted airport authority would implement his vision of "regionalization" -- making Los Angeles more like New York City or Washington, D.C., metropolitan areas with more than one major airport.

Despite the slow pace, Villaraigosa aides say they already have made critical progress on regional air travel, bringing one United Airlines flight a day to the city's airport in Palmdale and 30 new direct flights per day to LA/Ontario International Airport.

Meanwhile, Los Angeles Councilman Bill Rosendahl, the man picked by the mayor to head the airport authority's board, said other counties won't join the effort unless they are certain Los Angeles won't force new air traffic on communities that don't want it.

"That's why I'm taking my time," he said.

"I want to show that suspicions of L.A. taking over are totally unfounded. Those were the suspicions in the beginning, so I'm in no hurry to force anybody to do anything."

Rosendahl, a close Villaraigosa ally, worked with the mayor in December 2005 to settle a lawsuit over the last LAX plan -- a legal agreement that scrapped two-thirds of the projects envisioned for the airport by Villaraigosa's predecessor, Hahn.

The settlement was supposed to launch a new era in which Los Angeles World Airports, the agency that runs LAX, would shift its emphasis toward a regional approach.

These days, however, Rosendahl is spending much of his time trying to prevent Villaraigosa's Airport Commission from pushing LAX's northernmost runway closer to Westchester and Playa del Rey, both of which are in his district.

Villaraigosa aides say the mayor could wind up pursuing twin strategies -- wooing airlines to L.A.-owned airports in Palmdale and Ontario while trying to get the airport authority to move more passengers by bus and rail to those airports.

To achieve the latter goal, the authority could push for an extension of the Metro Gold Line east to Ontario, Villaraigosa spokesman Matt Szabo said.

"We're doing what we can, as fast as we can, to regionalize air travel by encouraging expansion at Ontario and other airports," he said.

Still, a rail extension to Ontario has no funding and would take several years. So would Rosendahl's vision of building light rail or magnetically levitated rail between Anaheim and Ontario.

For the time being, much of the regional airport authority's time has focused on minutiae -- a 29-page report that shows five ways of structuring the agency's board.

To persuade more elected officials to take part, board members are talking about prohibiting the agency from gaining the power of eminent domain, the ability to take private property.

Orange County officials want a "pledge of non-interference" guaranteeing that the authority won't try to increase the number of flights out of John Wayne Airport, said Mario Mainero, chief of staff to Orange County Supervisor John Moorlach.

The county also wants a guarantee that the authority won't lobby the federal government to secure increases in air travel out of Orange County.

"Until . . . they're willing to do those things, the supervisor is not comfortable committing the county to rejoining that agency," Mainero said.

Riverside County Supervisor Bob Buster, who skipped two of the board's last three meetings, said his constituents also have little interest in more air traffic, since they are already upset over night flights by the shipping company DHL.

"That's soured people on the introduction of any other flights -- commercial or otherwise," he said.

Knabe, who served on the first incarnation of the airport authority in the early 1980s, said he fears the agency could end up becoming too welcoming, winding up with as many as two dozen members. Some would-be representatives only want to join to protect their own backyards, he said.

"I think with everyone's effort to be inclusive, we're losing sight of the vision, and that's the regionalization of our air traffic," Knabe said.

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