Late-Hour Lobbying Fails to Halt Critique Of Hahn's LAX Plan

By HOWARD FINE
Staff Reporter

It's not every day that L.A. business leaders are lobbied intensely by the mayor's top-level advisors certainly not this mayor, who has been widely criticized as not being attuned to business interests.

Then again, the escalating campaign by Mayor James Hahn to renovate Los Angeles International Airport is not just any issue. It has become a centerpiece of the Hahn administration and with public support tepid at best, the mayor's people had been counting on support from business.

But last week they came up short.

Hahn's failure to win over the 100-member board of the Economic Development Corp. of Los Angeles County represents a serious blow to his $9 billion LAX proposal and comes just two months after the board of another influential business group, the Valley Industry and Commerce Association, voted against major portions of the airport plan.

The EDC board essentially signed off on a report prepared by one of its committees that was critical of Hahn's airport overhaul, concluding that the plan was too expensive, did little to ensure that LAX would be able to serve a constantly growing air travel market and did not have enough flexibility to meet ever-changing security and market conditions.

The mayor's plan, the report said, "would radically and irrevocably change the nature of passenger access and airport operations and raise difficult questions of passenger convenience, security, cost and flexibility."

Among the disputed elements: construction of a ground transportation center in Manchester Square more than a mile from the airport's central terminal area and demolition of three of the eight existing terminals.

The EDC delayed taking a vote on the report for two weeks as the mayor's office unleashed an intense lobbying campaign that involved Deputy Mayor Troy Edwards, Airport Commission President Ted Stein and Jim Ritchie, head of long-term planning for Los Angeles World Airports. Edwards, in particular, played a central role in contacting board members individually up until last week's vote.

"Suddenly, we felt like we were the most important group in the mayor's office," said EDC President Lee Harrington. (Business Journal Publisher Matthew Toledo is chairman of the group.)

The sudden attention from City Hall marked a striking turnaround from much of the previous two years, according to EDC members, when the organization sought to have greater input into the development of the airport plan, particularly in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

"There was one stretch where we didn't hear anything out of the mayor's office for seven months," Harrington said. "We felt frozen out of the process."

To be sure, parts of the airport plan are coming under criticism from other circles, including community groups in the nearby Westchester area. In addition, a Rand Corp. report last May concluded that the plan would do little to improve security in and around LAX.

Most airlines have expressed concerns about the proposed reconfiguration of the terminals, although United Airlines, which has the biggest presence at LAX, has come out in support of the plan.

Such mixed reaction has made support by the business community all the more important.

"Getting the LAEDC on board is the Good Housekeeping seal of approval on any major economic endeavor in our community," said Richard Lichtenstein, president of Marathon Communications, a lobbying and public affairs firm that has clients doing business at LAX. "It also generates substantial media attention, which can be invaluable in building support down the road."

Viggo Butler, a semi-retired airport consultant who chairs the EDC's Critical Infrastructure Council and was the chief author of the report, said there seemed to be little wiggle-room in the Hahn administration's approach for suggested changes. "We stated our case and they stated theirs," he said. "There wasn't any real give-and-take."

Furthermore, Butler said, Hahn administration officials seemed to imply there would be a price to pay if the EDC did not support the plan.

"A repeated message we got was that if we didn't go along with the plan now, we can't be at the table to change it later," he said.

Edwards flatly denied that any such threat was made.

"We never said that," he said. "We've been working openly and have solicited opinions from this organization and will continue to do this even if they have opposed portions of the plan. Furthermore, we will continue to do this even after the plan is entitled."

Besides taking issue with the Manchester Square ground transportation center and the terminal demolitions, the EDC report makes the following recommendations:

- Creation of a network of remote passenger "fly away" locations throughout the county, much like the Van Nuys Flyaway that's been in operation for the last several years.

- Extension of the Green Line into LAX.

- Locating the ground transportation center nearer the airport, possibly in the current Lot C location.

- Modernization of the Bradley International Terminal, including gates that accommodate larger aircraft that are expected to come on line in the next five years.

Edwards takes issue with the EDC recommendations.

"What you have here are two distinctly different visions of what the role of LAX should be," Edwards said. "The LAEDC simply disagrees with the mayor that it's unfair for the communities surrounding LAX to bear the burden of the region's entire aviation needs. What's more, their counter-proposals would increase traffic and emissions in those communities, especially in Westchester."

Indeed, the bickering over details points to a fundamental disagreement over how much LAX should be allowed to grow in the coming decades.

The EDC has long favored an airport that can expand with marketplace demand. "The region must not cap its future with a "no growth plan for LAX," the report states.

But in his 2001 campaign for mayor, Hahn pledged to El Segundo, Westchester and Inglewood officials that he would cap LAX at 78 million annual passengers a year, about 30 percent above current levels. Since he took office, Hahn has tenaciously clung to that cap.

"The LAEDC starts and ends with the fact that they don't want this 78 million passenger cap," said Harvey Englander, senior vice president with the L.A. office of the MWW Group, a public affairs firm. Englander represents the city of El Segundo, which has long pressed for just such a cap on LAX growth.

EDC officials say a cap on LAX growth would be detrimental to the regional economy.

"Every study indicates that the highest propensity travelers in the L.A. region are on the Westside, near LAX. If you put a cap on with no plan to accommodate these frequent travelers, you will start changing people's travel patterns and see a reduction in economic activity," Butler said.

Yet even if an agreement had been reached on the cap issue, Butler said, the EDC would still have had major concerns with the Hahn plan. "We've been looking at this airport for more than four years now and there are many problems with the Hahn proposal, starting with the immense cost," he said.

The plan is set to go before the Airport Commission and the City Council sometime next year. Even with these approvals, construction is not set to begin on the plan until 2005 at the earliest; full build-out would take another dozen years.

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