January 18, 2006 - From the January, 2006 issue

L.A. Airport Commission Chair Alan Rothenberg On LAX Master Plan

After 15 years of grand plans, fierce opposition, and seemingly endless disputes, the future of LAX became much more clear with last month's agreement between the airport and its neighbors. Alan Rothenberg took over as chair of the Los Angeles Airport Commission only five months ago, but he now looks forward to a dramatically different future for LAX and the region's air travel network than he did when Mayor Villaraigosa appointed him. As he describes in this exclusive MIR interview, Mr. Rothenberg and the commission can now turn their attention to implementing limited changes and upgrades at LAX and to formulating a true regional airport solution that will take advantage of all four LAWA airports as well as the airports under other jurisdictions and serve the region's growing need for air transit.

Alan Rothenberg

Last month MIR published an interview with El Segundo Mayor Kelly McDowell. It focussed on the announced settlement of legal challenges to LA's master plan for LAX. Your views on this settlement would be equally valuable.

The lawsuit was slowing down so many of the things that needed to be done at LAX, and one of the first thing that Mayor Villaraigosa said when he appointed the commission is that we have to do everything we can to settle this lawsuit so we can get on with the necessary work. Since he had not favored the grand master plan, I think he had a lot of credibility with the plaintiffs, and, indeed, when we first started settlement discussions he personally participated, as he did at the end as well. The view that the mayor has expressed with respect to the airport and the harbor – which is one that I certainly share – is that Los Angeles's economy now and in the future depends on the airport and the harbor. Therefore, we have to do everything we can to make the people in and around the airport and the harbor not our enemies but our friends.

I think we made a settlement that satisfies the surrounding communities. We've taken measures to mitigate noise and traffic. I think we've taken intelligent positions with respect to the managed growth of LAX, and now we can begin to do the immediate projects that are necessary. Obviously the south runway is the most urgent. And, frankly, we can spend time planning for the future development of all of our airports instead of in litigation. This settlement will also afford us a new level of cooperation throughout the region to assist us and our regional partners in developing a clearer understanding of how we accommodate the demand for air transportation throughout the region.

Mayor McDowell went on to assert that the settlement required everyone to give a little in order to get a little. He concluded by suggesting that "constraining the capacity of LAX enables us to cope with an airport of definitive size and to jump-start the implementation of a true regional aviation plan so that other airports can start to pick up the load of passengers and cargo." What is your take on his assessment of the settlement's significance?

I agree with that. It's easy to say so because it's before my time on the commission, but I think the most horrendous lost opportunity that this region suffered was letting El Toro pass. That would have been a huge step towards proper regionalization. But that's water under the bridge, and we have to now come up with more plans. Mayor McDowell is right – physically LAX is constrained. It's about the smallest major airport in the world. There's only so much we can grow it no matter how hard we try.

Ontario still has additional capacity, and I think we have to come up with plans to accelerate getting it to its natural capacity. But if you look at the studies that are out there, even if you expanded LAX and Ontario to their natural capacities, somewhere in the not too distant future – ten or 15 years – we're strangled again. So we have to have plans that spread the opportunity and the burden throughout the region.

As I've said before, we have a lot of land – 17,000 acres – in Palmdale. Right now obviously it doesn't add anything, but I think we have to think into the future and come up with a way to develop that. And as part of the settlement there is the agreement to try to re-activate the Regional Airport Authority to see if counties and cities in the region can come together and come up with other solutions.

Was constraining capacity the key consensus on the number of gates to be built? Doesn't the Airport Capacity Act, which dates to the 1990s, make it difficult to constrain capacity at airports under FAA supervision. Is there actually a provision in this agreement that sets a real constraint on capacity?

The Airport Capacity Act prohibits a passenger cap on most airports. Consequently, we had to devise a practical constraint to capacity which was acceptable to both LAWA and the FAA. The concept of a limitation of gates was the best alternative mechanism to accomplish this goal. The gate reduction contemplated by the settlement will not occur until 2010, and only if the number of annual passengers reaches 75 million. The gate reduction configuration in the settlement agreement is very similar to the one included in Alternative D of the master plan.

Who else has to sign off on this? What is the exact status of this agreement?

The FAA, the City of LA, the County of LA, the City of El Segundo, the City of Inglewood, and ARSAC, the private group involved in the litigation. I don't know who I left off, but those are the key players.

Could you comment on LAWA CEO Lydia Kennard's contributions to this settlement? Mayor McDowell said she was immensely helpful, and obviously the mayor has confidence in her.

She is fabulous. She's very bright, she's articulate, and she's open. I think that this settlement came about primarily for two reasons: one is, as I said before, the mayor himself got involved at the beginning and all the plaintiffs truly believed that within proper limitations he wanted to get this done; and then Lydia's entrance was like night and day. She was intelligent, hard-working, persistent, but probably as much as anything, they trusted her as they should.

And the yellow-light projects in the agreement, are they still on the table?


Technically they're all still on the table. I think that everybody seems to be in accord one that they think is a great idea and one that they think is not a great idea. The first is the consolidated rental car facility, but I think that the notion of a remote terminal has lost a lot of favor. But nothing is being totally discarded or totally endorsed at this point.

Please comment on the role of the other contributors to this settlement: Supervisor Don Knabe, Supervisor Yvonne Burke, Congresswoman Jane Harman. Is their reaction similar to yours?

I think everybody is happy. We've been fighting to figure out what to do with the airport for 15 years. We haven't come out of this lawsuit with a comprehensive, fully implement-able long-range plan, but at least we've gotten over a significant hurdle. I haven't heard anybody who's against it. Obviously a handful of individual homeowners didn't think they got as much as they wanted, but I think of the major players, everybody seems satisfied. I made my living for 37 years as a lawyer, primarily as a litigator, and I know that when you settle a case, nobody is 100 percent happy because you can't settle it that way. Everybody has to give and everybody has to take. I think it was a very reasonable settlement that allowed everybody to go home feeling like their interests were served and their issues were attended to.

The only passenger airline serving Palmdale recently announced that it is pulling out. What are the challenges posed by regionalization, and is Palmdale really part of the solution for LAX?

Obviously as it exists today, Palmdale is not part of the equation. But as we think towards the future, I think it could be the crucial piece to the puzzle. I've traveled for a long time. I remember when Dulles was built and it was 30 miles out of DC and everybody said it was a joke; there was nothing but woods between the capital and Dulles, and now, of course, there's nothing but development between them, and it's active and healthy. The same thing happened in Houston, and the same thing is happening in Denver.

Ultimately that's the only realistic option I see. Now, I don't know how many tens of billions of dollars it'll take -- and it's not just the airport, it's also the ground transportation, and that's going to be massive, and I think we need to come up with creative ways to do that.

Obviously, it would need federal, state, and local government assistance, but I think we need to look hard at public-private options. Everybody has read how Macquarie, the Australian bank, made a deal with the city of Chicago to give the city $1.8 billion in exchange for the right to run the Chicago toll roads. There's a lot of private capital out there, and I think if we have some intelligent fiscal minds focused on it, we can probably come up with some public-private way to do the development. At the end of the day, with El Toro gone, I just don't see in the five counties another piece of land that is ready to be developed as an airport and take the burden.

What remains on your priority list as airport commission chair now that this settlement has be announced?

It's never-ending. Just this last week we had to approve, over a lot of controversy, the awarding of the contract to develop the south runway. We're fast and furiously modernizing Tom Bradley International Terminal. We are looking at developing Van Nuys, which does not get a lot of public attention, but it is the busiest general aviation airport in the country, and it's been neglected for some time. And we're in the middle of doing the in-line baggage program for security purposes. We're modernizing our information technology, and that includes a new contract with RAND to make sure that we're as up-to-date as possible on security, which is first and foremost in everybody's mind. When we get past those day-to-day issues, we need to look out into the future and take the steps necessary to make sure that this huge economic engine can handle the load.

Elaborate on how the commission decided to award the south runway contract to Tutor-Saliba, whose reputation has repeatedly suffered from disclosures of cost overruns and litigation.

There are those that think Tutor-Saliba is a fabulous contractor, and, needless to say, there are those that take a diametrically opposite position. The situation that we were in was, we had only two bidders. Tutor-Saliba came in $50 million less than the second bidder. Since the bids have come in, construction costs have soared. We could have taken the position that Tutor-Saliba was not qualified and rejected the low bid. Undoubtedly that would have caused a lawsuit, which would have further delayed things. We could re-bid it entirely, but we faced the prospect of losing time with the likelihood that it would still be the same two bidders with Tutor-Saliba still being the low bid, only this time at a higher level because of the higher construction costs.

We really had a Hobson's choice, and what we intend to do by awarding it to Tutor-Saliba is have high-level, virtual full-time representation overseeing every step of the way. We have asked for monthly reports so we can monitor it as possible. Hopefully it will turn out to be a tempest in a teapot. Hopefully Ron Tutor got the message – I don't know how he could have missed it – and will realize that his reputation is very much on the line, and this will be his opportunity to silence the critics by coming in on time, under budget, with a quality work product.


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