An $11 billion expansion and modernization plan for Los Angeles International Airport won City Council approval despite threats of lawsuits, warnings of soaring costs and doubts about whether it will deliver on its promises.
In a series of 12-3 votes, with unanimous support from San Fernando Valley members, the council agreed to battle against objections from Los Angeles County and dozens of Southern California cities. A vote on final approval was set for Dec. 7 on what would be one of the largest public works projects in the nation.
The action was a major victory for Mayor James Hahn as he heads into his bid for re-election next March as well as for his ally, Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski, who developed the strategy to win passage. Miscikowski broke the plan into two phases -- broadly supported elements that cost $3 billion and controversial elements that will need confirming votes later.
Still, the council vote approves the plan in its entirety and Hahn was jubilant, claiming vindication of his leadership.
"A lot of people didn't believe we could do this, when I said we had to change our plans to make LAX a safer airport after the 9-11 attacks," Hahn said.
"A lot of people didn't understand that we had to do this. If we did nothing the airport would grow to 80 million passengers a year. It would have been miserable for traffic, for passengers and airlines."
Critics dispute whether creating a single arrival-departure center will be safer and other aspects of Hahn's plan, but the mayor dismissed their concerns.
"I think people want a leader who can get things done," Hahn said. "I showed I can work with the council, with others to get a proposal of this magnitude adopted."
There is general agreement and support for $3 billion of the projects -- those in the so-called green-light category -- expected to create upward of 12,000 jobs.
Those projects include improvements to the Tom Bradley International Terminal, south runway improvements and construction of a rental-car facility.
The plan also has a $500 million community improvement element for job training and soundproofing of schools and homes. All the cost will be covered by the city airports department.
All of Hahn's major challengers in the upcoming election opposed the LAX plan and two of them, Councilmen Bernard Parks and Antonio Villaraigosa, joined with Councilman Jack Weiss as the three votes against adoption. State Sen. Richard Alarcon, D-Van Nuys, and former Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg have come out against the plan.
Weiss introduced a proposal to eliminate $8 billion of the projects -- the so-called yellow-light programs that have generated the most controversy -- but it was rejected by the council.
Weiss, Parks and Villaraigosa questioned whether the plan would serve only as the basis for litigation and not improve the facility.
"My concern is that this will be an economic engine for lawyers and not for workers," Weiss said.
Former El Segundo Mayor Mike Gordon, who collected more than 17,000 signatures on petitions opposing the plan, said representatives of an anti-airport group are meeting with attorneys to look at legal challenges to the plan on environmental grounds.
"They have not seen the last of us," Gordon vowed.
Even if a lawsuit is successful, it would not necessarily halt work at the airport, said Senior Assistant City Attorney Claudia Culling.
Instead, she said, a judge would be more likely to find problem areas to be studied and fixed.
Also, she urged the council to keep the master plan as a whole, not divide it, to avoid delays of up to nearly three years for a new environmental study.
The council maintained the authority to stop any project it wanted, but the airport would be allowed to go ahead with those areas where there is agreement, Culling said.
Parks said he was not convinced the airport plan would limit growth to 78.5 million passengers a year, even with requirements of annual reports and surveys on passenger use.
Kim Day, executive director of Los Angeles World Airports, acknowledged LAX cannot tell airlines to reduce flights. But, she said the plan's design will limit access and reduce the number of aircraft able to use LAX.
Also, officials said, the plan calls for a reduction in the number of gates at the facility.
The plan also saw wide support.
Councilman Greig Smith said he was embarrassed by LAX and its rating in customer satisfaction surveys.
"We are 22nd out of 25 major airports," Smith said. "Part of the reason we are having the problems we have is that no one stood up years ago and said this needs to be done. It is time for us to take a stand. Twenty years from today, the council of the city will look back and thank this council from 2004 in approving this plan."
Councilman Tom LaBonge also sought to alleviate fears of El Segundo residents over plans to move the south runway 50 feet closer to its city boundary.
Wrapping 50 feet of string around a water bottle, LaBonge held one end and asked an airport official to stretch it out to show the distance. It went to the council chamber's second row of seats to the horseshoe desk where council members sit.
"That's all the distance we're talking about, with the potential to save thousands of lives," LaBonge said.
Updating LAX was first proposed by former Mayor Richard Riordan in 1993, with plans then to expand to accommodate some 100 million passengers.
While that proposal underwent environmental reviews, Hahn came into office and changed its focus after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
It ran into controversy and appeared headed for defeat until he and Miscikowski began to work together to modify it by separating projects into green and yellow categories to require more detailed study of the most controversial aspects of the plan, such as creating a separate ground transportation center.
"I don't think the plan of a year ago would have had a chance," Miscikowski said. "The specific plan, in effect, hijacked the master plan to make sure everyone has a seat at the table."
Under the specific plan concept, detailed environmental reviews will be required of all the yellow-light projects along with specific approval from the council.