Massive LAX Overhaul Proposal By Hahn Includes People Movers
By HOWARD FINE
In what would be the most expensive public works project in Los Angeles history, Mayor James Hahn and airport officials are developing a massive $8 billion overhaul of Los Angeles International Airport that’s aimed at enhancing security and accommodating the next generation of super-jumbo jets.
The plan, revealed in draft form earlier this month to Westchester business leaders, would reconfigure several terminals and runways, and demolish the parking structures inside the airport, replacing them with a huge off-site parking area a mile to the east, next to the 405 Freeway. The plan also includes the use of people-movers to connect the parking area, other remote parking lots and area hotels to the terminals, as well as the Green Line that now bypasses LAX.
The airfield improvements would be financed largely through the Airport Trust Fund, a nationwide pot of money from ticket surcharges specifically geared for airport improvements. Other sources of funding would have to be found for the offsite parking lots and people movers and possibly the reconfigured terminals.
The modernization plan is only slightly smaller than the $8 billion to $12 billion proposal by former Mayor Richard Riordan.
The Hahn administration and airport officials hope to bring the plan before the City Council by the beginning of 2004. If approved, it would take eight to 10 more years to complete the project.
But opposition is expected to build from several quarters, including some neighboring communities and possibly the airlines reluctant to change their operations.
“Of all the plans we’ve seen over the last six or seven years, this one has the least effect on the surrounding communities,” said John Ruhlan, chair of the airport relations committee of the Westminster/LAX/Marina del Rey Chamber of Commerce. “For a first go-around, it seems like a good plan.”
But El Segundo officials and other airport expansion opponents are wary, saying that it could be a back-door way to increase airport passenger traffic.
“This plan changes the physical constraints of the airport, allowing more planes, larger planes and ultimately more people to use the facility,” said El Segundo Mayor Mike Gordon. “That, in our eyes, is expanding the airport, whatever Mayor Hahn might say.”
Mayor silent on details
Hahn administration and airport officials refused to comment last week on details of the plan, preferring to wait until they meet with more area residents and make further revisions.
However, Hahn spokeswoman Hilda Delgado said that the expansion plan would also include some improvements at the two other facilities owned by the city: Ontario International and Palmdale Airport.
During his campaign for mayor, Hahn pledged not to raise the airport capacity above 78 million annual passengers. Before Sept. 11, 63 million passengers per year went through the airport.
After the terrorist attacks, LAX was found to be particularly vulnerable to future attacks because of the close proximity of the parking and passenger drop-off areas to the terminals. Hahn announced in October that he had instructed airport officials to junk the Riordan expansion idea and come up with a new plan to make the airport more secure.
The proposal includes several features for enhanced security. The most obvious is the elimination of the parking lots containing 12,000 spaces within the terminal area. All parking and most vehicular access would be shunted to remote lots. The biggest of these would be located in a half-square-mile area called Manchester Square, bounded by La Cienega Boulevard on the east, Century Boulevard on the south, Aviation Boulevard on the west and Arbor Vitae Boulevard on the north.
For years, the airport has been buying homes from residents in the Manchester Square area which lies in the landing path for the northern set of LAX runways and has added soundproofing to the remaining homes. If this plan were approved, the airport would have to purchase and then tear down all the remaining homes to make way for the new parking lots.
At this point, it’s unclear how many lots would be built in Manchester Square or what the configuration would be. One major concern is ensuring that lines to enter the structures don’t extend onto the adjacent San Diego (405) Freeway, causing further jams on that already severely congested stretch of highway.
On the airfield itself, the new plan calls for widening the spaces between each runway in the two parallel pairs of east-west runways and installing a “centerline taxiway” in between the runways in each of the parallel sets.
On the northern pair of runways, near Lincoln Boulevard, the southern runway would be moved several hundred feet closer to the terminal area. On the southern pair of runways, near Imperial Highway and the Century (105) Freeway, the southern runway would be moved closer to the airport boundary with El Segundo.
The purpose behind moving the runways is three-fold: reduce the number of close calls between aircraft on the runways; accommodate the next generation of A380 Airbus planes that can hold up to 570 passengers; and allow more room for planes to stack up for takeoff without crossing the runways.
Making room for the larger jets is also the main reason behind the terminal reconfiguration. According to Westchester business leaders who have seen the plan, Terminals 1, 2 and 3 on the north side of the airport would be demolished and replaced with a single large terminal with fewer gates. Overall, the new plan would reduce the total number of boarding gates at LAX from the current 163 to 152, or 7 percent.
Terminals 4 through 7 on the south side would remain largely as they are now, but the plan calls for new terminal space to be added to the west of the current Bradley International Terminal.
As for the space inside the airport horseshoe that’s now used for parking, the plan calls for a huge security screening area. This would allow the airlines and/or the airport to install dozens of the high-tech security screening devices, each of which is as large as a tractor-trailer.
Before passengers even get to this screening area, they will have been given preliminary screening at the remote parking structures before getting onto people movers. Their baggage would be checked in at the remote lots; the plan raises the possibility that an underground tunnel would be built to move the baggage to the airport.
Westchester business leaders say the plan calls for two sets of people movers. One would function as an express line, whisking passengers from Manchester Square to the terminal screening area in four or five minutes. The other would be more like a “milk-train,” stopping at other public and private remote lots and several area hotels as it proceeds up 98th Street (just north of Century Boulevard.)
Help for hotels
“This would be a tremendous cost-saver for us,” said Javier Cano, General Manager of the LAX Marriott Hotel. “It means we would no longer have to operate shuttles to the airport; instead, the people-mover would stop right near our back entrance.”
One unexpected advantage of siting the parking area in Manchester Square is that it will be easier for passengers to connect from the Green Line to the airport terminals.
From the nearest Green Line stop at Nash Street, there is an abandoned rail line proceeding up Aviation Boulevard to the western end of Manchester Square. That line could presumably be used as a spur for the Green Line, at a fraction of the cost it would take to extend the Green Line into the main terminal area. Riders would then pass through the preliminary screening area and hop on the express people mover for the five-minute ride to the terminals.
Westchester business leaders said that among the only vehicles allowed into the airport would be buses from the Van Nuys Fly-Away, where passengers have already gone through preliminary screening. At this point, it’s unclear whether shuttles, taxis or other buses would be allowed in or directed to the remote lots.
But even if all these vehicles are forbidden from airport entry, the redirection to Manchester Square or other remote locations is not expected to cause much inconvenience for private airport lot operators or rental car agencies.
Even as these details are being worked out, the Hahn plan also keeps its eye on the bigger regional picture, according to L.A. County Supervisor Don Knabe, an LAX expansion opponent who was briefed on the plan last week.
“As I see this plan, LAX will become the airport of choice for international travelers and the super-jumbo jets, while people taking shorter flights will go to Ontario, Burbank, Long Beach and, eventually, Palmdale,” Knabe said. “That’s a vast improvement from the Riordan plan, which simply sought to funnel everyone through LAX.”
Council approval needed
Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, who now represents the LAX-Westchester area and who has been a staunch opponent of airport expansion, called the preliminary plan a “mixed bag.”
“There will be controversy and a long way to go before there is a final plan,” she said.
Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski, whose coastal district will include the airport area after redistricting takes effect next week (July 1), was waiting to be briefed on the plan late last week before commenting, according to chief of staff Lisa Gritzner.
“It’s a huge project, but improvements are long overdue,” said Stephen Erie, professor of political science at the University of California San Diego who has extensively studied regional airport issues. “It’s been nearly 20 years since any significant improvements have been made to the airport. Meanwhile, other airports like Denver, Phoenix and Las Vegas are passing us by.”
From a user’s standpoint, Erie said the new plan would make the airport more cumbersome than at present, although some of this is to be expected in the aftermath of Sept. 11.
“No longer will you be able to drop off a passenger by the curbside and have them dash a few yards into the ticket line,” Erie said. “Now you’re going to have to park your car in a remote lot over a mile away and take a people mover into the airport. You will have to pass through two security screenings before you even set foot in the terminals. It’s going to add time and inconvenience,” he said.