Approval of an $8.7-million contract to begin the EIS/EIR (environmental impact study/report) for Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) by the Los Angeles Board of Airport Commissioners on Monday, January 14th, starts the process of identifying various proposals to redevelop LAX and possibly reconfigure the northern runways.

While the board voted unanimously to award the three-year contract to an existing contractor at LAX, Camp Dresser & McKee, Inc., commission vice president Val Velasco asked before the vote if voting yes meant the EIS/EIR process officially starts, and Los Angeles World Airports officials said yes. Los Angeles World Airport is the agency that operates the city’s airports.

Roger Johnson, executive director of planning, said the first step is the Notice of Preparation, to be issued in January.

Velasco asked if the various alternatives presented by the public would be included in the EIS/EIR and Johnson said the alternatives would be evaluated to see if they meet project objectives.

Velasco said that her concern is that an independent study by NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) that was requested by opponents to reconfiguring the northern runways would not be completed first.

Gina Marie Lindsey, executive director of Los Angeles World Airports, said that NASA officials have said they will do only a small portion of the independent study and that someone else will have to complete the study because of NASA’s involvement with other priorities.

Lindsey said Los Angeles World Airports had made it clear to NASA that it wants help, but there was no positive response.

Lindsey said reasonable avenues would be explored on work that NASA is not willing to do.

BROWN ACT ACCUSATION — At the beginning of the meeting, airport commission president Alan Rothenberg asked for a replay of the video of the December 17th meeting, a meeting that included discussion of runway safety at LAX without that item being on the agenda.

Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley had determined that the board had been in violation of the Brown Act, which allows the public to address the agency on items within its jurisdiction, but no disciplinary action was taken.

Rothenberg told the public that he was “very hurt and angry beyond belief” by the accusation that the Brown Act had been violated by the commission.

“This commission tries to be as transparent as possible and listen to everyone, and this really bothers me and is not true,” Rothenberg said.

He said a decision had been made not to legally challenge the finding, but that he was personally compelled to go on the record about how angry he is.

VIDEO REPLAY OF DECEMBER MEETING — Discussions about runway safety among the commissioners during that December meeting replayed at the January meeting included comments by Walter Zifkin, mentioning the recent Government Accountability Office (US GAO) study about airfield and runway safety at major airports in the U.S., including LAX.

Zifkin said that report and a five-study report by companies closely aligned with the aircraft industry showed safety problems that needed to be fixed.

He mentioned former FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) chief Marion Blakey’s comments that the “geometry” of LAX needed fixing, which referred to the reconfiguration of the northern runways.

The Government Accountability Office report did not identify runway reconfiguration at LAX as necessary, nor did the report even mention it.

What the report did state was that human error and insufficient technology were to blame for runway incursions.

Zifkin said it was “unconscionable that it has taken this long to get around to it,” and that the commission couldn’t forgive or be forgiven if it were held accountable for a tragedy.

“The EIR should be expedited and come up for approval as soon as possible, by the first January meeting,” and it was clear that the commission shouldn’t wait for the NASA study, said Zifkin at the December meeting.

Airport commissioner Fernando Torres-Gil said he agrees with Zifkin, and that “we can’t wait for NASA.”

Torres-Gil said the time for action is now regarding safety, and that “we have to take in the economic consideration and that we’re not just serving stakeholders but over 20 million people in Southern California and uncounted millions of others with this critical economic engine.”

Asking for a declaration of an emergency and the advice of legal counsel, Torres-Gil said the public wouldn’t excuse the delay and would ask why it took so long.

“I want an emergency declared and I want to resolve the geometry problem [referring to Blakey’s comment about geometry being the problem with the northern runways] for safety and the economy,” Torres-Gil said.

Velasco said it had been 12 to 15 years of frustration, but said she had to remind the commission about the stipulated settlement agreement (in late 2005) between the City of Los Angeles and plaintiffs that included Los Angeles County, the cities of Inglewood, Culver City and El Segundo, and ARSAC (Alliance for a Regional Solution to Airport Congestion).

The commission doesn’t really know where we’re headed and there are so many things we can do besides reconfigure the northern runways, and no one disputes that we need more air traffic controllers, said Velasco.

Velasco referred to a Los Angeles Times article, “Stop the Bulldozers,” that indicated human error in runway incursions.

Pilots have to understand the language, and old radar equipment is still operative, so moving the runway doesn’t solve it, Velasco said.

Commissioner Sylvia Reyes-Patsaouras said she agreed with Velasco.

Commissioner Joseph Aredas said the studies showed the same conclusions — that there are safety problems — and that he supports moving quickly but he’s not talking about violating the stipulated settlement agreement.

Commissioner Michael Lawson said that moving on several different fronts would enhance the commission’s work in the eyes of the community, but that “we can’t let the discussion process keep us from moving forward.”

Lawson also asked if there is any lawful way to expedite the EIR process once it begins.

Lawson asked if, once something emerges from the EIR process, there is something to make it move faster.

“This is an accident waiting to happen, literally and figuratively,” Lawson said.

Velasco said that interim measures of the report let commissioners know what is happening.

Lindsey stated during this December meeting that NASA objectives had changed, and that there was “unrest” within NASA about working with Los Angeles World Airports on the study.

FURTHER SAFETY DISCUSSION, JANUARY MEETING — Raymond Jack, the airfield manager, told the audience at the January 14th meeting that new centerline marking had been completed in December at LAX and that new in-pavement hold bar lights were at all runways.

An Airfield User Awareness Program has also been instituted in publications for pilots that include information about construction, a hot spot incursion map and the south runways centerline taxiway construction, utilizing operational and technological means to educate the pilots, and work with the FAA and the airlines.

El Segundo mayor Kelly McDowell spoke during public comment, saying that safety is a time bomb ticking away and that the process should begin immediately no matter how much it costs.

McDowell was booed and hissed at by several audience members.

He also said that reconfiguration of the southern runway was agreed upon by El Segundo because of the safety factor.

Velasco commented that NASA had done studies for the southern airfield complex and that the northern runway deserved the same study.

California State Assemblyman Ted Lieu’s senior field representative Stephanie Molen read a statement from Lieu that said, “As the assemblymember representing the district in which LAX sits, I thank you for your concern about safety at LAX.”

Lieu’s statement expressed support for the review being undertaken, “but the review would take up to two years, and then there would be even more years after this study is completed before something, if anything happens.”

Lieu requested that the commissioners take two actions.

The first would be to petition the U.S. Secretary of Transportation and the FAA to immediately increase space between flights, reduce the number of flights at LAX, diverting those flights to regional airports until a long-term solution is implemented.

The second action would be to petition the U.S. Secretary of Transportation and the FAA to hire more air traffic controllers to alleviate controller fatigue and reduce chronic understaffing.

One public speaker told the commission that it would be nice, as this process is embarked upon, to feel the deck isn’t stacked against the community.

He said Westchester is not anti-safety or anti-airport, and invited commissioners to take a walk on Westchester Parkway, bearing in mind that moving the northern runway would move it two football fields closer to homes.

He also commented on the fact that public comment would be only 60 days rather than 90, pointing out that other projects have had longer review periods.

Robert Acherman, ARSAC vice president, said safety and security are uppermost, but there is adamant opposition to moving the northern runway.

Years ago, the northern runway was moved and there were promises not to move it again, he recalled.

The heart of the community, homes, shops and businesses, were destroyed, said Acherman, and “no one wants to see TJMax, In-N-Out, Ralphs, places where we shop and dine, destroyed.”

“We gave up a kidney, and we’re not about to give up our heart,” said Acherman.

An alternative would be to move one northern runway to the south, or to have only one runway. There are other choices such as better striping and lighting on the airfield, signage, radar, and sufficient air controller staffing, Acherman said.

In 1991, an accident at LAX was due to controller error, not runways, and to say the accident was related to geometry dishonors the memory of the victims, said Acherman.

Other cities have more than one large airport, and LA/Ontario International Airport could be the world-class gateway, Acherman said.

Both Ontario and Palmdale have room to expand and new runway designs could be put in, it’s a case of priority, he said.

“You declare you’re safety- conscious — please prove it,” Acherman told the commissioners.

Danna Cope, the chair of the LAX Area Advisory Committee, said that the first time a runway was moved, over 10,000 residents lost their homes, businesses suffered, and there were promises of no more such action.

Now businesses have been coming back, but now homes can be lost again and the economy would be affected, Cope said.

“Look at the people living here that spend their paychecks here all year — tourists come in and go to other places,” she said.

“Stop dumping on people here who make it grow,” said Cope. “We can’t afford any more traffic gridlock and there’s no realistic expectation of mass transit anytime soon.”

Other residents spoke out against runway reconfiguration, which, interestingly enough, was not an agenda item, but expected to be part of the EIR by most who attended and spoke against it.

Gary Toebben, chief executive officer and president of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber encourages moving forward to have a world-class airport and that the city’s economy can’t afford another delay, “but it’s about safety.”

Toebben said that on his chamber’s Web site, his article “Airport Planning Finally Takes Off” stated, “Led by [airport commission] president Alan Rothenberg and commissioner Walter Zifkin, the board approved a contract to begin the environmental review for a number of critical projects. However, none is more crucial, or controversial, than how to increase separation between the parallel runways on the North Airfield.”

Toebben went on to say in the article that “the Los Angeles City Council will be pressured from renovation opponents to put the brakes on the process because one of the possible alternatives moves the northernmost runway closer to homes. Opponents will use every means possible to delay the environmental impact report.”

Toebben said the City Council “must resist all efforts to delay, and instead should be focused on passenger safety and the millions of people living in their districts who depend on LAX for employment, business and leisure travel, and the movement of goods produced by the companies for which our citizens work.”

Velasco said it is very difficult for her as both a commissioner and a community member, and that the board wants a master plan in place and safety issues resolved, but public comment sounds the same as it did five to ten years ago, and the perception is that a decision has already been made.

“We can’t expedite the EIR process because there are legal requirements, and we want to be thorough,” she said, adding that the number one factor in the Government Accountability Office report on runway safety was human error.

Zifkin asked if there is a way to fold the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) into the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to expedite the process.

Zifkin said he doesn’t want Los Angeles to wind up as a “second-rate airport, and over the next 20 years LAX is a crucial part of the puzzle.”

Torres-Gil echoed Zifkin, citing a second-rate airport, diminished jobs, the economy and home values, and followed it up by saying, “It may sound like I have bias, but I assure you I’m truly open to any and all suggestions.”

He then said that human error needs to be accounted for and that LAX needs more air traffic controllers.

Torres-Gil also said he wanted to change the vernacular on “independent” study, because that assumes that no studies were done.

“We have a variety of studies — the GAO is independent and others could be classified as independent and if we never get the NASA study it doesn’t mean we don’t have an independent study,” said Torres-Gil.