TPR checks in with Los Angeles World Airports executive director Gina Marie Lindsey on the status of projects included in LAX’s specific plan amendment, which won recent approvals by the LA Board of Airport Commissioners and the LA County Airport Land Use Commission. Lindsey also describes the progress of construction at Bradley West terminal, negotiations with Ontario Airport, and a potential LAX-Metro rail connection. With a new mayor and council on the horizon, Lindsey stresses looking beyond local land-use politics to the region-wide economic significance of modernization efforts at LAX.
"In airport situations like LAX with dense development around the airport, it’s harder for policy makers to get rewarded for making the strategically important long-term regional best decisions, as opposed to making short-term, parochially expedient decisions." -Gina Marie Lindsey
Gina Marie, in February the Los Angeles Board of Airport Commissioners approved the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the LAX Specific Plan Amendment Study (SPAS), including the Final LAX SPAS Report, the Staff-Recommended Alternative, and amendments to the LAX Plan and LAX Specific Plan. Remind our readers what these actions involved and resolved.
Gina Marie Lindsey: Essentially they cleared the path for future development of projects that had until then, been under a cloud, not approved. We did not have a landside solution that was approved under the old master plan, and we did not have a north airfield that was approved under the old master plan. The board’s action cleared the path for long-term development in those two sectors of the airport.
So what are the next steps in the now 25-year approval process for enhancing LAX facilities? There was a recent LA County Airport Land Use Commission (ALUC) hearing, but give our readers a sense of where we are in this 25-year process.
Gina Marie Lindsey: Well, we are not finished, that is certain. This is what we would call a programmatic Environmental Impact Report (EIR), and the action the board took was to approve that programmatic EIR. In other actions, the LA County Airport Land Use Commission (ALUC) recently said, “OK, this programmatic EIR has a general land use footprint that is compatible with our (the County’s) land use plan.” They made no judgments on how the various components, facilities, and parts were being put together within that general land use envelope. They were just looking at whether the land use envelope is compatible or not compatible—and they voted yes, it’s compatible.
The next step is to go to the Los Angeles City Council committees of jurisdiction (TCT and PLUM) and then to go on to the full council for a vote. The result of affirmative votes in those two sectors would be the City’s approval of the programmatic EIR that sets the development direction on the airfield side and the land side. Then our responsibility as LAWA would be to do project specific CEQA EIR work on the airfield and on the land side in order to develop the detailed drawings and impact and mitigation packages. That would be on the local state path.
Are LAWA staff, the airport commissioners, and the LA City Council now on the same wavelength regarding enhancements to LAX, in your opinion?
Gina Marie Lindsey: I can’t opine on the City Council because they haven’t taken action yet. Certainly LAWA staff and the BOAC commissioners are absolutely on the same wavelength. I am hopeful the City Council will be there as well, but I would feel way out on a limb if I opined to that effect prior to them taking any action.
What are likely to be the issues raised at City Council?
Gina Marie Lindsey: I think there are going to be allegations that the airport is expanding (which is not the case, because we are not proposing anything that is outside of our already existing land ownership). I think there will be allegations that we’re moving the noise closer to the neighborhood, making air quality worse, making surface transportation worse, and that we’re not spreading the air traffic evenly across the airports of Southern California. We’ll probably also hear that the airfield is safe enough. Now, of course we have our perspectives on each one of those things, but that’s probably not what you’re asking?
Allow us a provocative question: Do facts matter at such hearings on airport / land use matters?
Gina Marie Lindsey: That is a wicked question, and you know it! Especially during the election season! Generally, facts seem to be less important than emotion.
Diverting from the political controversy to what has been accomplished at LAX, could you update us on the status of Bradley West Terminal and the construction of its new gates?
Gina Marie Lindsey: We are behind what we ideally hoped would be the schedule; we hoped that all of the west gates would be open by early this year. We do have three gates open and operational. We will have the community celebrations and open house for Bradley West the weekend of June 20-22, and the remaining west gates and the grand hall commercial area should be operational in late July of this year. So I think it’s probably fair to say that we’re running later behind the market demand.
We now have six A380s per day coming into the airport, and we only have four A380 gates that we can use now—last month we opened up a couple of the north gates on the new building. But, as I said, six are arriving each day. I expect that we will be completely finished with phase two of the project by the middle of 2014. That would be demolishing the existing Bradley concourses and building the apron areas for the east gates on the new building, consolidating the security screening checkpoints on the mezzanine and connecting the old building to the new building.
Remind our readers of the economic case for approving plans for an enhanced LAX?
Gina Marie Lindsey: Well, let me put this in some historical context. Years ago, airplanes could only go to a few gateway airports because they didn’t have the range. Today, airplanes have the technological capability to fly wherever they want to. In addition, cities all over this country, and the world, understand how an efficient, modern airport is a fundamental underpinning to their economy. This means competition for air service, particularly international air service, is quite intense. We need to keep this airport competitive or we in Southern California are going to gradually lose our economic edge.
Perhaps the economic argument has been overshadowed by the local, land-use-policy politics of Los Angeles? What’s lost if you are unable to enhance LAX?
Gina Marie Lindsey: I think it’s really this: we are the third largest international gateway in the United States today. Part of that is because of our market, and that’s great. But another part of it really is because we’ve been an efficient airport that can serve the international flights. With Denver, Dallas, Seattle, and San Francisco doing everything they possibly can to attract international flights—international flights create a much bigger economic footprint than domestic flights, and all of those cities know it—other cities will energetically go after our international market. Today, those international flights can go to any of those places; they don’t have to stop at the first west coast gateway airport they find. If we, in LA, loose that edge, we will be losing critical economic development potential.
In terms of access, ingress and egress, using mass transit and working with Metro, what is the status linking transit to LAX?
Gina Marie Lindsey: Assuming our specific plan amendment recommendation gets approved, LAX will then have a long-term plan for airport infrastructure, enabling the airport to identify land that we would be able to make available on the airport for light rail stations.
There are two locations. The first is generally the lot C long-term parking area, where the Culver City Bus, the Santa Monica Blue Bus, and the MTA buses stop now, just north of the Sheraton gateway. The other site is where the old air traffic control tower is, right at the entrance to the central terminal area. Those are two prime pieces of real estate LAWA staff think would be fabulous opportunities for light rail stations.
For a little further amplification on the lot C location: our plan in our long term SPAS plan is to build an inter-modal transportation facility, which would not only incorporate the bus activity currently stopping there but eventually shared ride vans, Flyaway busses, and hopefully light rail. Since transportation planning 101 typically says, “Co-locate as many ground transportation options as possibly on the same piece of real estate,” we think this is a fabulous opportunity for the city and airport to have all of those options co-located.
Now we don’t decide whether to bring light rail into those locations, that is MTA’s role, and they are certainly better at it than we are. What we have done, however, is put both of those pieces of real estate on the table and said, “If you can get your light rail here, we will build that station for you.
Is the notion that one might check in at the inter-modal transportation facility for any airline? Or would you stop and move on to your own to a specific terminal and air carrier gate?
Gina Marie Lindsey: Ideally, we would have the ability for passengers to check in at that inter-modal transportation facility—I’d also love it if they could check bags there. But those two additional activities have significant federal and airline operational hurdles to get over so I wouldn’t want to promise anything. But that would be the ideal. Still, at that inter-modal transportation facility you would get on some conveyance that would get you to your individual terminal. Whether it’s a rubber tire solution, or eventually an automated people mover, remains to be determined as we move forward.
Again, before we turn to some hot political issues, let’s take an easy one, like the regionalization of your operations. KFWB did a story about a month ago on a report that says the airport operators have ignored legal requirements to distribute commercial flights to regional airports to reduce jetliner effects on the environment. We’ve done stories with you about Ontario airport and its challenges—bring our readers up to date?
Gina Marie Lindsey: First of all, it needs to be understood that neither airports nor cities can tell airlines where to fly. Especially if we take federal money, we are prohibited, in the grant assurances, from refusing service to any airline that wants to use the airport. What the City of LA has done to facilitate regionalization is, number one, build out the Ontario airport, at the cost of hundreds of millions of dollars, so that the facilities are there for airlines to use. We have added 110 acres to the Ontario airport footprint, built two beautiful terminals and a fully equipped airfield.
We’ve done a huge amount of marketing; we’ve talked with over 171 airlines since 2007 (22 meetings in 2012 alone) to try to attract airlines and additional services to the Ontario airport. In spite of that, however, traffic has dwindled substantially at the Ontario Airport, and traffic at LAX is growing. This is actually part of a national trend—the same thing is happening with secondary airports versus primary airports in the Boston and San Francisco areas. There are airline business reasons for these trends, if you want to talk about it I can tell you, but that’s what is happening.
I would have to say—and this is obviously editorial and a value judgment on my part—I think, having come into this regionalization midstream, it’s extraordinary that the City of LA has invested as it has, in an airport that isn’t even in LA County, to provide the most important beacon for that airline, which is that they have a decent airport. That has been provided at Ontario.
Of course, Ontario et al. seek to manage the airport themselves, and that seems to be a point of tension with the City of Los Angeles.
Gina Marie Lindsey: We are more than happy for that to happen, however, this is a situation where the City of LA needs appropriate compensation for the investment that I just told you about. At least typically, when I’ve been in front of the City Council, with any kind of divestiture of assets for the City of LA, there is a very hard question about whether we get enough compensation for divesting ourselves of those assets. That’s the question that needs to be answered. We’ve been in negotiations with the City of Ontario about exactly that, and we continue those discussions.
Let’s turn to the impact of the mayoral election taking shape in the City of LA and how it affects airport plans. How do you time and balance the challenges that a political process places on your year-by-year and crisis-by-crisis planning?
Gina Marie Lindsey: Well, to tell you the honest truth, we are just trying to get as much accomplished as possible before the inevitable transition happens. I know historically mayoral transitions have been very hard on LAX. I hope this is not the case going forward, but we’re not naïve. We know our world could change, so we’re trying to move as swiftly as possible in the same direction we’ve been heading for almost six years to accomplish as much as we can.
Of course the politics are not limited to a mayor’s race. You have a clash in the US House of Representatives between Maxine Waters and Henry Waxman. Can you put that in context for our readers?
Gina Marie Lindsey: I am not in either one of those offices and am certainly not in their shoes, but since I have a point of view on what this airport must do in order to continue to be an economic engine for Southern California, I am grateful and continue to support the long-term vision that Congressman Waxman has supported. I don’t think he’s typically known as a narrow-focused business, economic development guy. I think he’s typically known as having broad visionary interests, looking at the entire picture and trying to figure out what’s the best public policy decision. Because he supports what we at the airport know is necessary for the airport to develop and compete well nationally and internationally, I respect the Congressman’s long-term view.
I think Congresswoman Waters, as well intentioned as she is, is certainly concerned about what she is hearing from her local constituents. We think those concerns are, in some instances, not well placed. But clearly we haven’t done a good enough job convincing her of that.
Gina Marie, you’ve been at this for some time, and San Diego’s airport’s issues have been with them for more than 35 years. What explains why it is so hard for metropolitan airports in the last quarter century to adjust to the markets they serve?
Gina Marie Lindsey: Well, it’s not universally this difficult across the country. People manage to get things done in some places. Why is it so hard here? The governance structure is not conducive to running an efficient enterprise, which is what LAWA really is. When the development decisions are dependent on multiple jurisdictions and several term-limited elected bodies, it’s hard to cast a vote for something that will take many years to be delivered. There are definitely noise implications and surface transportation realities airport neighbors should expect. Residences under the flight path are not as quiet as rural residences. In airport situations like LAX with dense development around the airport, it’s harder for policy makers to get rewarded for making the strategically important long-term regional best decisions, as opposed to making short-term, parochially expedient decisions.
What’s the best and worst promise by the mayoral candidates that can be made for LAX and LAWA?
Gina Marie Lindsey: The worst promise would be to say, “We’re not going to authorize the necessary runway separation at LAX but let’s spend money on everything else in the plan.” The best: “Approve runway separation and thereby enable the remaining terminal, landside and surrounding neighborhood planning & development opportunities.”