January 11, 2007

2007 Begins With L.A. Supervisor Knabe Championing Regional Airport Authority

By some accounts, Southern California has plenty of tarmac to handle the increasing flow of passengers and goods that arrive by air. The problem, however, is that traffic is distributed unevenly, and only a small number of airports-most notably LAX-bears the vast majority of the burden. But the reactivation of the Southern California Regional Airport Authority holds the potential to form a true regional air traffic scheme that would spread out traffic and take advantage of under-used airports. A longtime proponent of airport regionalization, L.A. County Supervisor Don Knabe represents the districts that encompasses LAX, and he has long sought to ease its burden. In this MIR interview, conducted in conjunction with SCAG, Sup. Knabe explains the challenges and potential of the revived SCRRA.


Don Knabe

Given your consistent support for regionalizing Los Angeles county's public services, how might the recently revived regional airport authority improve air transport in Southern California?

It can play a very important role as it relates to a centralization of the planning process. I'm probably the only one left over from the original Southern California Regional Airport Authority that Clifton Moore developed. It wasn't meant to operate airports, and it became a clearing-house for air expansion in Southern California.

Expansion was going to happen, it has happened, and they can't continue to do on 3,500 acres in L.A. what they've done on 35,000 acres in Denver. I don't see SCRAA-at least in the near future-operating an airport. But it certainly plays a role in facilitating the development of a transportation network and to be a clearing ground to bring all the regional areas together. That's one of the reasons that we extended the invitation to Ventura and to San Diego.

SCAG and LAWA are both involved in regional aviation planning. Is there a role for SCRAA in this, and then how does it coordinate with SCAG and LAWA in terms of aviation planning?

SCAG and LAWA are two different things. LAWA is an operator and SCAG is a planner without the ability to implement. I think SCRAA could be the implementer. SCRAA is a fragile organization in the sense that if the city of L.A. is not a player, then SCRAA goes away again. The irony of this is the fact that it was the city of L.A. and Clifton Moore who had the vision, and the city of L.A. was the one that sort of tubed it. LAWA has three airports in the system, but most importantly they have the two that have the greatest immediate opportunity for expansion-Ontario and Palmdale.

Extenuating circumstances hurt the previous attempts. Yorty had his own idea; Bradley had his own idea. Bradley wanted the Red Line; so you have to refocus. Riordan had a massive undertaking. Hahn was there for a while, but then 9-11 hit and it became a matter of economics; he didn't want air traffic to go any place else but back to LAX. So here we sit today with Antonio, so far, so good. The fact that the mayor appointed a councilperson that represents the area on SCRAA was a big first. He can be a great facilitator, particularly when he pushes expansion of transportation and is the implementer with getting everyone to the table.

Some critics claim that LAWA protects its own airport system and doesn't reach out to airports beyond it. Can SCRAA spur LAWA to take a more general regional perspective?

I think it has that potential. But, again, we have to reactivate it and keep it going. And it depends on the spirit of cooperation with the city of Los Angeles and those airports.

Right now the membership consists of the counties and the city. One of the things you will be looking at is the relationship to airport operators, to SCAG, and to a broader definition of Southern California, including Ventura and San Diego. How can SCRAA relate to these outlying counties?

It is critical to involve Ventura and San Diego because they look at north San Diego County as a potential site for moving San Diego airport. The last time SCRAA was operating, Riverside and San Bernardino could have been active players. As I told Secretary Mineta over and over again, when you say you need more cement for runways, we're saying, "We don't. We have it with the closed-down Air Force base."

Since that last time SCRAA went away, Riverside has really lost interest. The supervisor from Riverside said, "The time has passed us by; we're not going to be your dumping ground." They had their own planning process. They started to move business. They started to move housing-all kinds of stuff. San Bernardino, on the other hand, still wants to develop their international airport. So, we do have issues. That's why all these other counties need to be involved.

What about Orange County?

They are members. I talked to Jim Silva briefly-he's got other things on his mind; I think it is called State Legislature. I'm trying to follow up with Orange County. I think they have to be active participants, just for access. If they don't want to do anything at John Wayne and they want to build high-speed rail from Orange County, and you've got all kinds of access issues that we've always talked about; they have to be at the table for that.

In terms of access, what about the relationship with the county transportation commissions? What kind of access do you see SCRAA having with them?

I think SCRAA facilitates it with the potential to implement it. But, you have to look at existing organizations that may be good at implementing it, such as, the Southern California Regional Rail Authority, Metrolink. The Metrolink board, which I am on, has everybody at the table, with the exception of San Diego. So again, when you talk about regional transportation, you have some opportunities to include other existing organizations without having to re-create.

Some of the issues that you are going to face in January involve the existing powers at SCRAA, including eminent domain, condemnation, operating airports, and the voting rules, which is a single veto system. How might SCRAA deal with the powers?

That is one of the things we're having out attorneys look at. As far as I am concerned, you can eliminate eminent domain and everything else from JPA. I don't see SCRAA in that role. I would hope that the trade-off would be the elimination of some of that overt language that makes SCRAA look like it is going to be this big airport operator.

There was a concern early on that SCRAA would be a tool that takes over LAWA and everything else. We had that fight. And then we had the fight with Orange County and the eminent domain issue about El Toro. I don't have a problem limiting that language. The most beneficial thing would be for SCRAA to go away eventually. Do its job to bring everybody together; if it sticks, it sticks. If it doesn't, you at least get the people to the table from all the counties.

In New England, the FAA has been a catalyst in getting something like ten airports in five states to coordinate. Might the FAA play a similar role in Southern California?

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That would be ideal. At the end of the day the FAA has to be at the table with us. The longer the FAA stays away, the bigger problem we have. That's why I am excited about the possibilities, but I also know that the city of L.A. and the FAA could go sideways to everything else we do here.

What about Riverside County and March AFB? If they are concerned about being the dumping ground for L.A. and San Diego, how does SCRAA keep Riverside happy?

I think that is the biggest credibility issue. They are the ones who got upset at first when we had to pull the first time. They had paid their dues and that kind of thing. That's a big issue. They were excited the last time we did SCRAA. Time has changed their attitude.

With the reauthorization of the FAA bill next year and the potential to use aviation funds for ground access, might that be a rallying point for the region?

Absolutely. That's why I see SCRAA as more facilitating the ground access. Until you solve that issue, some of the regionalization is not going to happen. That could be a rallying point if you have enough flexibility with dollars.

What kind of relationship should SCRAA develop with cities such as Ontario and Palmdale, where the airports are actually located?

Maybe some ad hoc membership. I don't know if SCRAA is so focused on backyard issues. In my conversations-I guess I am on my third mayor of Ontario as well-they are really focused on Ontario. Their interest is not in Palmdale.

When I speak publicly about this I say that I don't want to oversimplify, but air traffic is like prisons. If somebody wants it, give it to them. We can't go out into the water with LAX; we've got a Burbank, we've got a Long Beach; they're holding their own, somewhat limited in what kind of capacity they can or can't do. Palmdale has wide-open space.

I would hate to see Palmdale become a Riverside County-just a few years ago Riverside said, "Give us you air traffic. Give us all your cargo." Then a few years later they are saying, "We're not going to be your dumping ground." There are a lot of FAA employees in the regional headquarters that bought land in Palmdale in the 1960s because that is where the airport was going to be.

What about other functions aside from brokering and potentially financing ground access that you could see SCRAA performing? Some have mentioned negotiating with the airlines because LAWA won't push airlines hard enough.

From the airline standpoint, I don't know whether LAWA pushes hard, but, as I said earlier, I don't see SCRAA having impact with the airlines. It can certainly have impact with the DOT and the FAA, because the airlines aren't going to pay any attention until the FAA tells them to pay attention. What do they do if you try to go to the airlines? The first thing they do is run to Washington. So be it.

If you want regionalization of air traffic, somehow you have to force all the entities-by agreement, by JPA, whatever it may be-to say, "We're going to support regionalization of air traffic. We're not going to focus on just Ontario. We're not going to focus on just Palmdale. We're not going to focus on just LAX, Burbank, Long Beach," whatever it may be. When you support these things it can have dramatic impacts.

You don't stop them from their own niche marketing, but you do bring everybody to the table and force them to meet and put a certain number of dollars into a marketing fund.

What about homeland security? Do you see any role for SCRAA to play in a regionwide security budget?

If I had a dream, the idea of having operators together by law would be a great benefit to homeland security dollars. I called a summit between Mayor Hahn and Mayor O'Neill, because the Port of Long Beach and the Port of L.A. had been such competitors for cargo for so many years that they couldn't get the mind set to think about homeland security. Now they are working together and putting together multiple opportunities to compete on the same page for homeland security dollars. I see that same opportunity here on a regional basis.

Can SCAG help SCRAA? Or should SCAG stay out of the way?

SCAG has created a lot of great data. I see SCRAA bringing great information to the table and getting the people at the table. Until we get our arms around it, we need to see if there is going to be credibility to the entity. If there is no credibility, there is no SCRAA. If nobody wants it, that's fine. I just think it is a great opportunity.

If you want regionalization of air traffic, you are going to need something like a SCRAA to pull it together. What the form is that it takes shape in, I'm not sure. Again, I think the language should change to alleviate fears that there is a little organization that Knabe is pushing to be an operator of airports and do eminent domain and take property. It's nothing like that. It is to facilitate the regionalization of air traffic.

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