Historic agreement shelves plan to move it closer to Westchester and Playa del Rey
By Gary Walker
After years of legal maneuvering, mutual mistrust and at times open animosity, LAX officials and a neighborhood group opposed to airport expansion have reached an agreement that will keep LAX’s north runway from moving closer to Westchester and Playa del Rey.
The surprise deal announced Aug. 17 nullifies a 2013 plan to shift the runway 240 feet further north and ends a lawsuit against LAX by the Alliance for a Regional Solution to Airport Congestion (ARSAC), which in turn clears the way for ground transportation projects that include connecting light rail to the airport.
“This agreement proves definitively that [the airport] and its neighbors can work collaboratively and produce a result that benefits everyone — the airport, the traveling public, neighbors and regional aviation,” said Los Angeles Board of Airport Commissioners Vice President Valeria Valasco, who lives in Playa del Rey.
Not too long ago, “work collaboratively” wouldn’t have been so easy to say.
In fact, the deal between LAX and ARSAC, brokered by L.A. City Councilman Mike Bonin, almost didn’t happen.
Opportunities to broker a deal repeatedly fizzled over the past three years, with residents still stinging from the memory of prior LAX encroachments dating back to the airport’s seizure of dozens of homes and five holes of the Westchester Golf Course in the 1960s.
“There were several times when we hit the wall,” said ARSAC President Denny Schneider, a Westchester resident.
Then came another blow: In April, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge issued a ruling in favor of the airport, dampening hopes for a settlement just as ARSAC and the L.A. Airport Board of Commissioners were warming up to a consensus about the runway.
“We were all set to appeal the ruling, but it was still a shock,” Schneider said.
Unexpectedly, however, the ruling gave city officials and LAX another chance to look for common ground, Bonin said.
“There were people who thought, ‘Don’t settle with these guys, we won,’ but it became more important for the city to modernize the airport than it was to litigate,” he said.
Being able to proceed with airfield safety and ground transportation measures that would have been held up by the lawsuit — including the light rail connector, intermodal transport facilities for offsite airport parking, and roadway improvements to reduce airport traffic — were the “core selling points on the city side,” Bonin said.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who while a council member cast one of only two votes against moving the runway, had made stopping the runway move an issue in his mayoral campaign.
“It was a cornerstone of my campaign. For me, you only have two moments to define who you are: What you promise to do and whether you keep that promise,” Garcetti said. “And I think they realized after a year that the mayor didn’t change his mind just because he got elected. They saw that I actually believe in this.”
Bonin said Garcetti’s July 2015 appointment of Deborah Flint as executive director of Los Angeles World Airports, the agency that runs LAX, also made a big difference. Flint’s willingness to listen to key airport staff members who wanted to negotiate with LAX’s neighbors was instrumental in reaching the deal.
There was other encouragement along the way.
Last month, Rep. Maxine Waters (D- Los Angeles) introduced congressional legislation that aimed to stop the north runway move, and airport officials weren’t exactly opposed to it.
“Los Angeles World Airports shares Rep. Maxine Waters’ deep concern for safety at LAX and the surrounding communities. At this time, the north runway [move] is not a priority,” LAWA Managing Director of Public Relations Mary Grady said at the time.
Schneider and Bonin agreed that the deal with ARSAC probably wouldn’t have happened under Flint’s predecessor.
“People didn’t trust the airport or the city to do the things they said they’d do,” Garcetti said. “But I think they realize now with new leadership [that] in just three years, not only do we have this lawsuit settled, we have public transportation coming soon, terminals that look better and traffic that will improve, ” he said.
Time to reach a deal was also running out. An environmental assessment of the airport’s ground transportation improvements is due in September, a possible point of no return for the possibility of an out of court settlement.
Schneider was blunt: “If we hadn’t negotiated this deal, I don’t know when we would have ever gotten back to this point,” he said.
Although the agreement allows LAX officials to revisit moving the runway, doing so would require completion of a brand new environmental study after all of the current modernization projects are complete — in other words, the very distant future.
For Bonin, resolving the runway issue is the culmination of 20 years of navigating airport-resident relations as both a city councilman and working for former council members Ruth Galanter and Bill Rosendahl.
“It’s one of the biggest things that I could have done on my watch,” Bonin said.