The L.A. City Attorney's office is close to settling a lawsuit filed by neighborhood groups and cities surrounding Los Angeles International Airport over portions of an $11 billion overhaul.
If the litigation gets resolved, it could give Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa the legal authority to significantly change former Mayor James Hahn's Master Plan, which has been approved by the City Council and the Federal Aviation Administration.
Villaraigosa envisions a scaled-down version of the project that would limit expansion at LAX while encouraging a regional air traffic network in Los Angeles. Such a plan would reduce the cost of improving LAX by about one-third and eliminate controversial projects such as building an off-site check-in facility.
The mayor also has replaced several of the people who were involved in approving Hahn's Master Plan, including the Board of Airport Commissioners. Last week, he replaced the executive director of the city's airport department, Kim Day, with Lydia Kennard, a vocal opponent of the overhaul proposal who returned to the top post after resigning in 2003.
"There is a level of optimism that the mayor is going to bring a different view toward the airport, and that we really see that as an opportunity," said Tony Gonzales, vice president of HNTB Architecture Group, lead contractor on the first project of the Master Plan. "It's been a general overview that we need to re-think the plan."
Yellow vs. green
Villaraigosa would unravel much of the work of former Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski, who appeased opponents by separating projects that were "green-lighted," or ready to be implemented, with those that were "yellow-lighted," which could not be built without further discussions and approvals by the council.
Green-lighted projects include moving the southern runways farther south, building a consolidated rental car facility, and constructing a tram-like people mover that would drop off passengers arriving on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's Green Line. Yellow-lighted projects include the off-site check-in center and the demolition of Terminals 1, 2 and 3, which would close passenger access to the central terminal area.
"The plan can change," said Miscikowski recently. "The plan has flexibility."
Villaraigosa was one of three councilmembers to vote against the plan because he said it focuses too much on LAX instead of other airports in the region. "We shouldn't put all our marbles in one basket," he said at the time.
The mayor's office did not return calls for comment.
Gonzales said he has not been told anything specific about the mayor's views on the airport, but expects most of the changes to center on yellow-lighted projects. He speculated that the green-lighted projects, while likely to remain part of the plan, may face smaller changes centered on layout, location and function.
Opponents of the so-called consensus plan drafted by Miscikowski say that the concept behind the green-lighted and yellow-lighted projects was never clear.
Denny Schneider, vice president of the Alliance for a Regional Solution to Airport Congestion, said he isn't sure that "Cindy's idea of a yellow-lighted project really changed anything. And I don't think there ever really was a consensus."
In order to remove those projects from the plan, Villaraigosa must end a court battle that impedes his ability to change parts of the plan.
In several lawsuits that were consolidated in Riverside Superior Court earlier this year, the cities of El Segundo and Inglewood, Los Angeles County, ARSAC and other neighborhood groups claim that the approved LAX Master Plan would exceed a cap on passenger capacity and increase noise, traffic and other environmental hazards in the area. The City Attorney's Office has maintained that eliminating projects altogether would render the plan void and require starting from scratch.
The conflicting legal opinions are taking over much of the discussion about the LAX improvements. Last week, the City Attorney's Office was in settlement talks that could allow the mayor to begin making changes to the plan. A hearing on those talks is set for Nov. 18.
Assistant City Attorney Raymond Ilgunas replaced Claudia Culling as the City Attorney's representative in the settlement discussions. Culling was the city attorney in charge of helping craft the $11 billion plan.
"I'm hopeful the settlement discussions will resolve a good number of the issues that are right now before the group," said Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who succeeded Miscikowski in the 11th district. "The yellow lights should be red lights, should be stopped and off the drawing boards, but that remains to be seen as the settlement discussions go."
The return of Kennard as executive director suggests that changes to the original Hahn plan are in the works. In her tenure, Day took a leading role in pushing through the controversial Hahn plan.
"Certainly, that's the most significant development to have someone in place who is willing to carry out this mayor's vision," said Councilman Jack Weiss, who expressed concerns last year about the security aspects of Hahn's plan. "Having Ms. Kennard in that position will be critical to this."
Meanwhile, a number of projects have already moved forward.
At the forefront is the first of the green-lighted projects, to move the southern runways 55 feet to the south in order to prevent runway incursions, which are incidents of aircraft coming to close to each other, on the south airfield.
A contract to reconstruct those runways could be awarded as early as November, said Paul Haney, spokesman for Los Angeles World Airports, the city's airport department that operates LAX, Ontario International, Van Nuys and Palmdale Regional. Construction is expected to begin in January.
No timelines have been set on any other green-lighted projects.
Another $1.4 billion in projects unrelated to the LAX Master Plan have begun under a three-year capital improvement plan. Those projects include interior remodeling of the Tom Bradley International Terminal and new baggage screening systems that would be located behind ticket counters instead of the airport lobby.
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