December 14, 2005 - From the December, 2005 issue

LAX EIR Litigation Settlement Clears Runway for LAX Improvements

The decade-long battle over the future of LAX ended this month with an settlement between Los Angeles World Airports and a raft of communities and cities that opposed the $11 billion modernization plan whose origins date back to the Riordan administration. El Segundo Mayor Kelly McDowell helped lead the fight to limit LAX's size, mitigate impacts on its neighbors, and promote a regional airport solution. MIR was pleased to speak with Mayor McDowell on Dec. 1, the day of the settlement's announcement, about the passions and process that led to the agreement and a new, more certain future for LAX.


Kelly McDowell

Mayor McDowell, we are interviewing you on December 1, the day the resolution of outstanding litigation involving LA World Airports' Master Plan EIR is being publicly announced. How significant is today for LAX and what concessions allowed the warring parties to settle their litigation?

At the start of this year El Segundo, Culver City, Inglewood, the County of Los Angeles and some citizens groups brought an environmental lawsuit against the City of Los Angeles and Los Angeles World Airports under the California Environmental Quality Act. That lawsuit was scheduled for a final hearing imminently, and some weeks ago the parties sat down with a mediator, and had serious settlement discussions and came ultimately to a resolution of the major outstanding issues of concern long term for all of the parties. The result is better than what any of us would have achieved in court and goes a long way towards addressing the concerns that each of us have.

Concerns of the airport neighbors are dictated largely by geography. For example, Inglewood and Westchester were far more concerned about the ground transportation center proposals than we were. We, on the other hand, were more concerned about the South Airfield Improvement Project proposals than were the other parties, and so on. Each of those concerns is addressed in the settlement, which mitigates the effects of the south runway project and essentially does away with the ground transportation center and the other objectionable "yellow light" projects.

Then, with respect to the county, Inglewood, and El Segundo, LAWA will provide a total of $240 million over the next several years for sound-insulating homes in each jurisdiction without requiring noise easements from homeowners. With that, the petitioners agreed to drop their lawsuits against the city and the airport and to permit the airport to begin the South Airfield Improvement Project, which the FAA has now made a national security priority. El Segundo has never opposed improved safety and security at the airport. After all, we are its closest neighbors and although the south runway would move 55 feet closer to our city, I believe, and I believe my council colleagues agree, that the security needs, combined with the mitigation measure specified in the settlement, will go a long way towards mitigating any adverse effects the project might have on us. In summary, everybody gave a little bit but I think that every party, including Los Angeles, got a lot.

Does this LAX EIR settlement help or hurt the prospects for a regional airport authority/plan?

Constraining the capacity of LAX enables us to cope with an airport of definitive size and to jump start the implementation of a truly regional aviation plan so other airports can start to pick up the load of passengers and cargo. SCAG estimates that 80 percent of the jobs and 80 percent of the people that will move to this region in the next two decades will move to the areas east and north of Los Angeles. That means that they need airports out there.

LAWA is positioned to gain the most out of that population and job shift because Ontario is poised for expansion and improvement right now and can handle additional capacity in its existing configuration. Palmdale Airport can handle tremendous amounts of traffic without adverse impacts on its neighbors because Los Angeles owns such an extensive amount of land up there.

We also think that some of the converted military airfields in the Inland Empire can pick up the air traffic that LAX might otherwise pick up. This will send the signal to airlines that substantial expansion of their operations at LAX is just not going to happen. That will get them working to pick up passengers and cargo at other sites in the Southland.

MIR interviewed then-mayor of El Segundo Mike Gordon last in August. While he has since passed away, he seemed to be very prescient about what would happen re LAX, saying, "In these negotiations with LAX the final agreement going forward needs to be for 30 or 40 years, and it doesn't make sense to shoehorn a plan through today when we could take the ground transportation center out, get the binding agreement on the gates and put in effect what should be done." Was Mayor Gordon right?

He was absolutely right. Mike and I worked very closely on the airport from the moment I was elected in 1998. We were the two members of the council who traveled farthest and widest to gain support for the regional plan by enlisting the support of cities and other agencies throughout Southern California. The capacity constraint is the key to regionalism, and Mike was correct that the plan by L.A. Councilmember Cindy Miscikowski combined with the Hahn Alternative B Plan didn't do the trick either on capacity or on offering any kind of comfort for the airport's neighbors that they would not be impacted by surface traffic generated by the ground transportation center and other improvements.

After Mike left the city council here and I became the mayor, the city of El Segundo, through me, entered prolonged negotiations with the Hahn administration and former Councilwoman Miscikowski in an effort to achieve exactly what Mike was describing. Mike Gordon was a pioneer in championing a regional airport plan that makes sense for the entire Southern California area and I think that this agreement will make that a reality.

LAWA has a new airport general manager in Lydia Kennard, who is not altogether new to LAX. Could you comment on what her presence added or didn't add to the negotiations and the final agreement on the EIR?

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Lydia's presence has been immensely helpful. She is an incredibly bright woman, is extremely well respected and liked by her staff and peers, and is a pleasure to deal with. No one knows LAX like Lydia Kennard. She was there for the birth of the master plan under Mayor Riordan with its grandiose 100 million per year passenger forecast, runways in the ocean, and so on and has seen every variation of that plan up until the present day and understands its virtues and its shortcomings and is therefore an incredibly quick study. When she came back to LA on October 8, it provided a boost to the negotiations, which were already underway, and I think her involvement was key to reaching a comprehensive settlement.

I remember a meeting during the course of the negotiations where we had gotten stuck and she suggested that she, myself, Mayor Dorn from Inglewood, and the county's representative meet privately and hash this out. In 90 minutes we got through that logjam, jumped ahead and continued to make progress much faster than we had been before. Things like that happened with regularity throughout the course of the negotiation and she deserves immense credit for that.

Please also comment on a few of the other critical players: Los Angeles County Supervisors Don Knabe and Yvonne Burke, and Congressman Jane Harman and her staff. What were their contributions to this agreement?

Supervisor Knabe and Supervisor Burke have a difficult task because their districts include neighborhoods near the airport, and they have been staunch allies of El Segundo from day one. Supervisor Burke represents communities that are disadvantaged and victims of environmental injustice as a result of the adverse impacts from LAX and have been virtually ignored in the past in terms of remediating the adverse impacts of the airport.

Supervisor Knabe of course represents El Segundo and Westchester along with the airport and has always supported us. Nothing gets past Supervisor Knabe, and I can't say enough about the role of their support and their contributions, such as his resurrection a few years back of the Southern California Regional Airport Authority, which may yet see the light of day again and act as a regional agency governing regional air traffic.

In the case of Congresswoman Harman, she has been immensely helpful in Washington both with the FAA and the Department of Transportation and back here in dealing with the Villaraigosa Administration and in opposing Mayor Hahn's plans. She has argued – correctly, I think – that before the airport spends $300 million dollars to reconfigure the south runway complex in the name of safety and security we can do some inexpensive fix-it measures that will go a long way towards improving security like putting up concrete barriers in front of passenger terminals and installing shatterproof glass in passenger terminals in order to make them less vulnerable to the most likely form of terrorist attack, which is a car or truck bomb.

In many of our interviews over the years on this project, it was clear that one of the stumbling blocks was FAA's authority and approval of any limitations on airport capacity. How has this settlement agreement, in order to be enforceable and practical, addressed FAA's concerns?

It walks a very fine line, and, you're right, the FAA has been an overriding concern of the City of Los Angeles and LAWA since day one. The reality is that under the Airport Noise and Capacity Act, which dates from the 1990s, it is difficult to constrain capacity at an airport because that constraint must be consistent with and essentially part of the airport's planning. In this case, it is.

Our settlement calls for a reduction in gates to 153 from the present 163 at the rate of two per year over five years. It implements the 153-gate goal that LAWA had set for the last year of the master plan much earlier in the process. Nevertheless, this makes it consistent with the master plan and from the FAA's perspective consistent with their record of decision. So, we think and our counsel certainly thinks that this method will work, will not meet objection with the FAA, and can move forward without apprehension about possible consequences might in Washington.

And how has the EIR, which is critical to final approval, been addressed?

The EIR will remain intact under the settlement. Further approval of the EIR itself should not be required either locally by Los Angeles or in Washington by the FAA. We expect that once the settlement is signed that the Airport Land Use Commission of the County of Los Angeles, which previously had declared the master plan incompatible with its land use plan, will now find that because of the settlement, plans are now compatible with their land use plan, and we believe they will wipe that decision off their books.

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